Ebola epidemic exposed weaknesses in UK preparedness, finds Government committee

Ebola Virus

A House of Commons committee has warned that the UK could be “vulnerable” to future epidemic situations following an inquiry into the Government’s response to the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The inquiry was launched to see what lessons could be learned from the UK’s response in the aftermath of the largest-ever Ebola epidemic, which claimed around 11,500 lives during 2014-15. It included analysis of research that indicates up to 12,500 cases of the highly pathogenic and often fatal virus could have been prevented if action, such as setting up treatment centres at the epicentre of the outbreak, was taken just four weeks earlier.

The Science & Technology Committee, made up of MPs, found that the UK is ill-prepared for any future infectious disease emergency of a similar magnitude. It describes the UK’s response as subject to “systematic delays at every stage”, from escalating surveillance data to convening a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The report reveals that SAGE was not convened until October 2014, three months after a Cobra – or government emergency response – meeting took place.

Ebola Virus

“Heroic job”

Nicola Blackwood MP, Chair Committee says: "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."

Flaws were also identified around the delayed development of vaccines and other drug trials, which, say experts, must be conducted while an outbreak is ongoing. The report says both the UK and the wider international community, were not ‘research ready’.

The Committee also warns of a “lack of capacity to manufacture vaccines” in the UK, since other vaccine-producing countries are likely to prioritise their own requirements ahead of others in a crisis situation. It describes existing facilities as degraded and says that new vaccine-production plants could take years to construct, leaving the UK in what is describes as a “vulnerable position” should an epidemic situation arise on UK soil.

Many of the findings echo those of last November’s report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and The Harvard Global Health Institute, which criticised the World Health Organization for its delayed response. That report said “major reform of national and global systems” was essential if we are to avoid the “suffering, death and social and economic havoc” caused by the Ebola epidemic. It also called for a global strategy to help poorer countries monitor, report and respond to future outbreaks.

Dr Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health, University of Oxford, says the report “highlights some important issues”, but describes it as having “restricted vision for the scope of UK science”. He adds: “The UK has world leading scientific assets both onshore and internationally. These were not adequately prepared for Ebola nor utilised during the outbreak. Whilst I very much endorse the committee view that research must be embedded in the emergency response I would go much farther and say that research for epidemic resilience must be embedded in the UK international development and security agendas, as it is in the United States.”


£1 billion investment

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

"This includes the £1 billion 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."

Committee Chair Nicola Blackwood adds: "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."

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