Health

UK is 'vulnerable' to next Ebola outbreak

Ebola virus Image copyright SPL

The UK is vulnerable to epidemics such as Ebola because of a gaping hole in the country's ability to manufacture vaccines, a group of MPs has warned.

The Science and Technology Committee said the UK "lacks the capacity" to produce enough to protect people.

And they said the government's response to the Ebola outbreak was "undermined by systematic delay".

The government said its "swift" action had saved lives and steps had been taken for an effective future response.

More than 11,000 people died in West Africa in the largest-ever outbreak of Ebola.

'Degraded' facilities

MPs praised the "heroic" efforts of the volunteers who often put their own lives on the line to tackle the epidemic.

But their report warned: "We are also concerned that, in the unlikely but possible event of a domestic outbreak, the UK lacks the capability to go further and manufacture enough vaccines to vaccinate UK citizens in an emergency.

"Existing facilities are degraded and new plants will take years to build, leaving the UK in a vulnerable position."

Image copyright Getty Images

The concern is that should a disease such as Ebola spread around the world then countries would look after their own interests first, making it hard for the UK to get hold of vaccines.

Prof Adrian Hill, who was involved in trialling Ebola vaccines at Oxford University, described the lack of vaccine manufacturing as a "national security issue".

Those concerns were echoed by the chief medical officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, who told the committee that "we are looking at how we can try and attract companies back".

Slow and confusing

The report also said "delays were evident at every stage of our response" to the crisis.

It pointed to research suggesting 12,500 cases of Ebola would have been prevented if treatment centres were set up just one month earlier.

And there was again criticism of the decision to set up screening at UK airports, contrary to recommendations from the World Health Organization.

Nicola Blackwood, the chairwoman of the committee, said: "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."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We have already taken steps to ensure an even more effective response in future.

"This includes the £1bn Ross Fund for infectious disease research, the UK Vaccine Network to target the most threatening diseases, and a rapid response team of public health professionals who can be deployed within 48 hours to investigate a disease outbreak in a developing country."

Follow James on Twitter.