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"Ebola exposed weaknesses in UK's response to disease emergencies"

25 January 2016

The Ebola epidemic exposed the UK's lack of readiness for an infectious disease emergency, the Science & Technology Committee has warned in its report. The Government must ensure that it is better prepared to mobilise scientific expertise and manufacture a vaccine in future.

Chair's comments

Nicola Blackwood MP, Chair of the Science & Technology Committee:

"Scientists, health workers and agencies did a heroic job working around the clock to confront the Ebola outbreak, sometimes at risk to their own lives. But the UK response to Ebola—like the international one—was undermined by systematic delay. The Government's emergency response procedures were triggered far too late in the day, Ebola test kits were developed and trialled, but not deployed, and the initial response was ad hoc and uncoordinated.

A combination of hard work and chance prevented Ebola spreading further than it did, but a future epidemic may be less containable and spread within the UK as well as overseas. We must take the opportunity now to ensure that the UK is not caught unprepared when the next disease emergency strikes. Lives can be lost for every day of delay."

Systemic delays

The inquiry identified systemic delays at every stage of the Government's response to Ebola: from escalating Public Health England's disease surveillance data to convening a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)—the main mechanism for channelling scientific advice to Government in an emergency. SAGE was not convened until October 2014, three months after 'Cobra', the Government's emergency response committee, met. The MPs recommend that the formation of SAGE should be triggered by a recommendation of the Chief Scientist in future.

Research during an emergency

Vaccine and drug trials often need to be conducted during a disease outbreak, but neither the UK, nor the international community, were 'research ready' when the outbreak occurred. The Committee also warns that the lack of capacity to manufacture vaccines places the UK in a vulnerable position when the next epidemic strikes, either overseas or at home. The report is calling on the Government and Chief Medical Officer to embed research into future emergency responses and negotiate with vaccine manufacturers to ensure capabilities can be called on quickly in an emergency.

Nicola Blackwood MP:

"Universities, regulatory bodies and pharmaceutical companies launched clinical trials for Ebola vaccines and treatments in record time. These efforts are to be commended, but it is also clear that the capacity to conduct research during an outbreak was not embedded in the UK's emergency response. We heard how this lack of research-readiness resulted in severe problems, from failing to prioritise basic clinical studies on optimal treatments for Ebola patients, to delays in obtaining and sharing vital clinical data. These failings must be urgently addressed."

Airport screening

Concern was repeatedly expressed during the inquiry about the rationale behind, and the communication of, the introduction of Ebola screening at UK ports of entry. The UK's stance on implementing screening at airports changed over the course of three days during the height of the Ebola outbreak and ultimately went against guidance from the World Health Organisation and Public Health England. The report recommends that the evidential basis for—and purpose of—interventions intended to protect the UK in a disease emergency are made explicit.

Nicola Blackwood MP concluded:

"It is encouraging that the Government has pledged more public investment in vaccine and treatment development for infectious diseases, but it should not stop there. It must maximise the effectiveness of these funds by publishing an infectious disease strategy, identifying the 'priority threats' that the UK should address, how much funding will be directed to each threat, and how action will be delivered."

Further information

Image: iStockphoto