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Inside Porton Down: Scientists working in Britain’s secretive lab admit to Covid -19 ‘trepidation’

Scientists who handle some of the most deadly substances in the world have described the ‘trepidation’ they felt when starting to research coronavirus.

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at the secretive Porton Down, near Salisbury, has been helping in the fight against the disease ever since the pandemic began.

Founded in 1916, the unique and expansive high-security site in the middle of the Wiltshire countryside is the oldest chemical warfare research centre in the world.

Its highly trained scientists are, with strict safety measures in place, used to handling some of the most dangerous known substances like Ebola, Anthrax, the nerve agent Novichok and plague – all of which are highly dangerous and deadly.

Inside the corridors housing high containment laboratories – split into four categories according to how hazardous the chemicals and pathogens inside are – staff have also turned their skills to tackling coronavirus.

Scientists who handle some of the most deadly substances in the world have described the ‘trepidation’ they felt when starting to research coronavirus. Pictured: Amanda Phelps, a virologist with more than 20 years’ experience working in high containment labs

Its labs are being used to study the traits of how the virus survives, with the results helping to advise the military and Government.

While there was some ‘anxiety’ in working with a new virus, scientists revealed how they felt proud to ‘step up’ and be at the forefront of cutting edge science which could help keep people safe.

In an interview with the PA news agency, which was granted rare access to the site, Amanda Phelps, a virologist with more than 20 years’ experience working in high containment labs, said: ‘There’s always some anxiety with something new because you don’t know necessarily how you might expect it to behave.

‘Most of the viruses that we have worked on for a number of years, we understand them very well. We understand how they grow and how they will behave,’ she said.

‘Now, coronavirus we didn’t necessarily expect to behave in any way that was very different to any of our other highly pathogenic viruses. But we didn’t know.

‘And so I guess there was a level of trepidation. But also, this is novel research, this is cutting-edge science … so there’s also a degree of eagerness to progress … the knowledge that’s going to enable us to inform the policy piece and to keep people safe.’

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at the secretive Porton Down, near Salisbury, has been helping in the fight against the disease ever since the pandemic began

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at the secretive Porton Down, near Salisbury, has been helping in the fight against the disease ever since the pandemic began

She told how staff had worked ‘tirelessly to acquire and grow the virus and to hit the ground running’, with work on disinfectants which they had developed as part of the response to Ebola in 2014. This allowed them to gather a lot of data quickly early on.

Ms Phelps added: ‘I actually feel very thankful that I can come to work and my skill sets are useful in the pandemic.’

Professor Tim Atkins, a senior fellow in DSTL’s chemical, biological and radiological division who coordinates the organisation’s research on coronavirus, told PA the pandemic had been ‘really hard’ for staff.

However, they feel ‘a responsibility and a real drive to continue to try to do what they do very well to deliver their projects and deliver as much as they can do in supporting the response,’ he said.

At the start of the outbreak, DSTL sent scientists into hospitals and it has since helped by analysing the test results of military personnel to reduce pressure on the NHS and worked to find ways of quickly decontaminating ambulances which had transported potentially infected patients.

Now it is developing equipment including an artificial finger to check how long the disease can survive on surfaces.

Founded in 1916, the unique and expansive high-security site in the middle of the Wiltshire countryside is the oldest chemical warfare research centre in the world. Pictured: Scientists inside lab at The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) at Porton Down

Founded in 1916, the unique and expansive high-security site in the middle of the Wiltshire countryside is the oldest chemical warfare research centre in the world. Pictured: Scientists inside lab at The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) at Porton Down

Scientists contaminate the silicone prosthetic with the virus and then touch different surfaces with varying pressures and lengths of time to see how long it lingers and whether this poses a risk for contracting the disease.

Another project in its early stages is considering whether the data gathered from shop-bought smart watches, which measures things like heart rate, could predict if someone was going to fall severely ill.

Chlorine, alcohol and detergent-based disinfectants are also being tested to see which may prove the most effective against Covid-19, as well as different wipes and hand sanitisers.

Porton Down, covering 7,000 acres, has been known for over 100 years as one of the UK’s most secretive and controversial facilities.

It is home to two British government facilities. One is the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and another run by Public Health England. It is also home to other private science organisations.

To date, most of the work carried out at Porton Down has remained secret, and has been controversial for a long time due to its use of human trials, use of animals, and the death of Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison in 1953. 

Porton Down's highly trained scientists are, with strict safety measures in place, used to handling some of the most dangerous known substances like Ebola, Anthrax, the nerve agent Novichok and plague - all of which are highly dangerous and deadly

Porton Down’s highly trained scientists are, with strict safety measures in place, used to handling some of the most dangerous known substances like Ebola, Anthrax, the nerve agent Novichok and plague – all of which are highly dangerous and deadly

A jury in 2004 determined his death to be unlawful, after he perished during during testing of the nerve agent sarin to determine a lethal dosage, leading to decades of lobbying for an inquest.

His death verdict was initially ruled as ‘misadventure’ in 1953, and while his father was permitted to attend the inquest, he was warned he would be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act if he informed anyone, including his family, of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death.

The British government has a page on its website called ‘The Truth About Porton Down’, on which it calls Maddison’s death as ‘tragic and regrettable incident’.

The page also explains that ‘Since 1916 over 20,000 volunteers have taken part in studies at Porton Down,’ and the ‘Volunteer Programme has always been operated to the highest ethical standards of the day.’

Human trials are still carried out at the facility, and comply with international standards, the Government says. 

It also says that the UK’s chemical weapons programme was closed down in the 1950s, and that since then, Porton Down ‘has been active in developing effective countermeasures to the constantly evolving threat posed’ by chemical weapons.

To dispel other conspiracy theories around the site, the page states ‘No aliens, either alive or dead have ever been taken to Porton Down or any other Dstl site.’


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