Deadly virus was handled outside safety cabinet
HUGH Pennington remembers the Birmingham lab which achieved infamy after the virus escaped.
Having worked there under Henry Bedson’s direction in 1969, he was extremely familiar with its layout and the staff who worked there everyday.
“It was really quite modern, well-equipped. It wasn’t designed as a lab to handle smallpox, although many alterations had been made to it so it could.
“The smallpox virus was handled in one small room – EG34b – which had safety cabinets, but my understanding is that not all the virus was handled in the safety cabinet.
“I don’t say corners were cut, and it had moved on since I worked there in 1969 where we handled the virus in the open.
“At that time Henry said ‘I’m not going to allow you to work with variola major, which is the nasty smallpox, you’re going to do this experimental work with variola minor’. I was researching an anti-viral drug.
“I don’t know whether he trusted me or not... he didn’t really explain it fully, but I was very happy to be working on the variola minor rather than the variola major.
“We had to be vaccinated and look at all the regulations in the lab and not go into the tea room wearing our white coats, because there were lots of precautions.
“But it was on the open bench. We weren’t working in safety cabinets, so I suppose you could say we were taking risks. Definitely.
“But there were three or four researchers and one or two technicians who would be handling the virus and making sure that things were cleaned up at the end of the day, which was a very important aspect of handling the virus.
“All the materials you’re using are either boiled or autoclaved or put into disinfectant or incinerated, in a way that it’s not going to come out of the lab and infect somebody.
“There were clear rules and regulations about that which I’m sure were followed.”
> Birmingham University Medical School