They gave Shepherd Construction a two-sheet brief and asked it to build a lab secure enough to test the most dangerous virus on Earth … inside six months. Thomas Lane reports on how the team took the test and triumphed

If you were to believe the headlines, you might expect the avian flu virus to be handled exclusively by men in spacesuits. But in fact, the people safeguarding the nation from a repeat of the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic, in which as many as 40 million people died, are white-coated scientists working behind a row of 1930s detached homes in Surrey. They work in the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, a sprawling site stuffed with labs, offices and a large farm.

Here they monitor our domestic and wild birds for the presence of avian flu, as well as carrying out testing for other countries.

The VLA also works on BSE and other less headline-grabbing diseases such as swine fever.

The spread of avian flu has prompted a massive increase in demand for the VLA’s services. The death toll has risen to 66 people worldwide this year, up from four in 2003.

And, to the apparent glee of tabloid scaremongers, there’s been a UK case, too. Not a human, but a swan, found dead in Scotland in April. This appears to have been a one-off, and the swan could even have died elsewhere and been washed up onto the coast, but the VLA remains vigilant. “We need to maintain our laboratory capacity,” says Steve Edmunds, chief executive of the VLA.

This increase in demand meant that the VLA needed a new laboratory – and fast. In February of this year, it turned to Shepherd Construction, which was rebuilding the office complex on the VLA site, to see if it could meet its tough brief. “They came to us for a solution and gave us a date to hit,” says Carl Adams, Shepherd’s project manager for the job. That deadline was just six months away: the beginning of August 2006.

The laboratory consists of two floors of modular units, and the effluent treatment plant on the right that pasteurises all the unit’s liquid waste
Credit: Shepherd Construction
The laboratory consists of two floors of modular units, and the effluent treatment plant on the right that pasteurises all the unit’s liquid waste

The trouble was, the building hadn’t been designed. “It’s a very complex building. Normally, the design period would be the same length as the build, so there would be a six-month lead-in period and six months to build it,” says Adams. “They had two sheets of A4 in their hand describing what was required.”

On the last Friday evening in February, the VLA asked Adams to come up with an outline price for Monday morning. “We gave a very outline price and they came back to us asking us to proceed on an open-book basis,” says Adams. Shepherd also agreed to take design responsibility for the building.

Thankfully, there was some help at hand as the VLA had originally planned to turn an existing building into the new avian flu lab. This meant that basic parameters such as the size of the labs had been established. But there was a huge amount of work to do. It was imperative that the virus could not escape, so the lab had to be totally sealed (see “How the lab works”, right). The air supply to the lab had to be controlled and filtered, and all the waste had to be pasteurised.

The only way to design the building was to get the whole team to agree on what was needed in their weekly meetings. Adams says decisions made were adhered to and any information requested was delivered promptly. “It was a case of, ‘If we don’t get the information by such and such a date, it won’t happen’,” he says. “The question, ‘Do you want to be the person that makes this project fail?’ refocused the meeting very quickly.”

Off-site manufacturing was an obvious way to save time. Adams had urgently approached OSM specialist Yorkon while he was working on the outline price and they had confirmed that a modular solution was feasible. The team now had to focus on developing the design to give Yorkon time to detail and manufacture the modules: it needed six weeks for detailed design and another four weeks to make the modules. The lab is configured so the ground-floor modules contain laboratories and a second storey houses the services. The original intention was to locate the plant rooms outside the building.

The laboratories occupy the first floor with the services located above
Credit: Shepherd Construction
The laboratories occupy the first floor with the services located above

The modules were ordered, giving the team until the end of April to prepare the site. The site was cleared but foundation work could not start until Yorkon had finalised its detailed design as the team needed to know the precise footprint and the exact loadings. “It only gave us two to three weeks to design and get the foundations in,” says Adams.

Responsive specialists were crucial. “It was a case of ringing our supplier on a Thursday and saying, ‘Be on site on Monday with a selection of men and machines and the drawings will follow by fax’,” says Matt Dubber, Shepherd’s site manager. Fortunately, Shepherd’s work on the VLA office complex meant it had a supply chain in place that was familiar with the complex site.

Now that the project had started on site, working 12-hour days, seven days a week has became the norm. While Yorkon was making the units and the site was being prepared, the team focused on the design of the interior. The plan was to fit out the units on site, which would give time to finalise the design during the manufacturing period. According to Adams, this was the most fraught time as so much detail had to be resolved. Shepherd also discovered that the equipment needed to pasteurise the waste was not suitable for this category of laboratory. The effluent treatment plant is a substantial piece of bespoke kit. Luckily, Shepherd found a company that could make what was needed in 12 weeks, although this pushed the handover date back to the end of August.

Special drains had to be installed before the modular units could be craned in. These are stainless steel and it was imperative they didn’t leak. “We couldn’t risk the pipes not being right and having to lift the building up,” says Dubber. “The pipes were prefabricated and x-ray-tested before installation so we were confident.” The pipes were installed just before the units, which were positioned over a long weekend.

The lab has sealed cabinets for handling the virus and simple benches for testing. There are also incubation rooms for growing the virus in eggs
Credit: Shepherd Construction
The lab has sealed cabinets for handling the virus and simple benches for testing. There are also incubation rooms for growing the virus in eggs

The next stage was to fit the clean room lining to make the building airtight and then to start installing the services in the wall cavity and above the labs. Next, the laboratory equipment and furniture were installed. By early July the effluent treatment plant and the main laboratories were completed, which left eight weeks for testing before handover. “The most critical and risky part for us was getting it all to work,” says Adams.

The labs had to be pressure-tested to make sure there were no leaks. The building also has to link up with the rest of the site. For example, steam for the effluent treatment plant and power is supplied centrally and there is a sophisticated site-wide building management system, designed to alert security staff if there is a failure such as depressurisation or a power failure. VLA staff had to be trained how to use and maintain the building. Staff started off using the lab to test for less contagious diseases than avian flu, but are now ready to cope with the real thing.

Avian flu and the VLA

Avian flu, or H5N1, is a highly contagious viral disease that, as its name suggests, affects many species of birds. It is transmitted by direct contact between birds or their saliva or faeces.

Humans can catch it if they are in contact with infected birds, or their faeces or saliva. About 50% of humans infected by H5N1 die.

High levels of the virus in humans trigger an over-reaction of the immune system, which causes an inflammatory response. When this happens in the lungs, it can kill. The big fear is the virus will mutate to a form that enables human-to-human transmission, as it did in the British Army during the First World War. This could lead to a global pandemic.

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency is part of Defra. Most of its work on avian flu is to monitor wild and domestic birds so that if there were to an outbreak in the UK, there would be a better chance of containing it.

Ian Brown, head of avian virology at the VLA, says it is hard to say whether avian flu will come to the UK. “You can’t comfortably predict anything,” he says. About 10,000 samples have been tested for avian flu in the UK this year.

The VLA also ensures that standardised testing methodology is used across the EU and provides reference standards elsewhere in the
world. In addition, it carries out research into topics including how a virus causes disease, transmissibility, interspecies transmission and host susceptibility.

How the lab works

“Basically there are two things you need to think about,” says Steve Edmunds, chief executive of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. “These are the safety of our staff and protecting our lifestock.” This means the avian flu lab is totally sealed, with ventilation air passing through HEPA [high-efficiency particulate] filters and all waste pasteurised to prevent the virus escaping into the environment.

To start work, staff enter through a lobby which has slight positive pressure to keep dust out from outside. They then go into a general outer area and change into laboratory suits. They then go through another two airlocks, with increasingly high levels of negative pressure, and finally into the lab, which is maintained at a negative pressure of 75 Pascals. When staff leave the lab, they take a shower – there is a shower cubicle in one of the airlocks – and change back into their clothes in the outer general area. Laboratory suits are laundered on the “dirty” side of the laboratory.

There are two laboratories in the building; each has an incubation room for growing the virus within bird eggs. There is also a freezer and a cold room for storing samples and an autoclave for sterilising equipment. The laboratories have been designed so filters and light bulbs can be changed from above without disturbing the sealed environment below. Ventilation systems, steam and power supply are all duplicated in case of failure.