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CSIRO spokesperson responds to comments on the Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: On the program yesterday, I spoke to Dr Pam Scott, who is the editor of a new book on high-tech, high-cost projects in Australia. The book is called A Herd of White Elephants?, and Dr Scott, last night, spoke at a parliamentary dinner on the big projects that have in the past proved to be white elephants; or projects like the MFP, the VFT or the space port, which could be white elephants in the future. One of those projects explored in the book is the Australian Animal Health Laboratory. In fact, Dr Scott did her Ph.D thesis on the setting up of the laboratory, at a cost to the taxpayer of $160 million, and she argues it was built to explore diseases, many of which did not exist in Australia at the time and that following an uproar from farmers and others, it now operates but doesn't quite do what it was built to do. Well, it appears the walls have ears. Neil Byrne from the CSIRO's Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong has heard Dr Scott's comments and is with me now. Good morning.

NEIL BYRNE: Good morning, Matthew.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Neil, are you talking to me from inside a white elephant?

NEIL BYRNE: I'm certainly not talking from inside a white elephant. I'm talking from inside a very active, very important laboratory for this country.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes. Now, I don't think Dr Scott was arguing that it wasn't an important laboratory. I think she was arguing that it was built for a specific purpose, and that for a number of reasons it never got to fulfil that purpose.

NEIL BYRNE: That's not correct. It is fulfilling the purpose for which it was created, but that purpose, that primary purpose, was not research into foreign diseases, but protection of Australia from those foreign diseases which includes research along with its most important job, which is testing, and training of Australian vets to recognise the signs of these diseases. And the one that everyone talks about as being the biggest threat, of course, is foot and mouth disease. And just a single case of foot and mouth disease in one animal, anywhere in this country, is going to cost our country something in the order of $4,000 million.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Initially though, there was a move to import these viruses into the laboratory for study here. That hasn't occurred, has it?

NEIL BYRNE: Many of the viruses have been brought into the laboratory, but more importantly than that, if we receive a sample for foot and mouth testing or for rabies testing or for testing for any of the other exotic disease threats, we have to assume that that sample contains that disease agent until we know otherwise. So all of our containment exists not just to contain those viruses that we might have to work on for the research to develop better tests and better control methods, but also because any suspected sample has to be regarded as containing that disease agent until we know otherwise. For example, two children have died from rabies in Australia in the last five years. And in both cases, regrettably, we were able to confirm that they had died of rabies. In the case back before Christmas, we were able to confirm that a child didn't have rabies. But we had to assume that the samples that we got contained the rabies agent.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Sure, but I think the initial plan was to import viruses such as that for study here.

NEIL BYRNE: Well, we have access to the rabies virus, because to do most of the testing, you actually have to have access to samples of the virus to act as a positive control.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So you do bring it into the laboratory?

NEIL BYRNE: We have samples of a wide range of viruses.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What about foot and mouth?

NEIL BYRNE: We don't have foot and mouth disease virus.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: That was the original .. that was an original intention, wasn't it?

NEIL BYRNE: Well, the original intention was to have a diagnostic capability for all of these diseases. At that time, you needed to have foot and mouth disease virus to do the testing. Because it is such a big threat around the world, we managed to develop, in conjunction with the British World Reference Laboratory for Foot and Mouth, a method of testing for foot and mouth that did not require access to the live virus in the process. But for many of the other diseases, that sort of knowledge doesn't exist around the world, and we have had to bring in samples of the virus, in consultation with farmers. Any request for us to bring in a virus has to be approved by the relevant farmer groups and then goes to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy for approval. So, for many of the disease agents we have had to bring in strains of the viruses so that we can have tests, so that we can have vaccines.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What does it cost to run the Animal Health Laboratory each year?

NEIL BYRNE: The Animal Health Laboratory receives about $5.5 million from CSIRO, matched by Department of Primary Industry and Energy; and now - this is something that's happened since Dr Scott did her early work - we receive something over $2 million a year from rural research funds - for example, from the Australian Wool Corporation, from Meat Research which, of course, is also money which is provided by producers to help us to protect them.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: If you were setting out now to build a place to do the things that you are doing now, would you build the same laboratory?

NEIL BYRNE: Well, we have to have a high level of containment, a high level of security. So, essentially, the things that we've done now .. we did in the past, we would have to do in the future. Several other countries are in a similar position where they are building facilities of a similar kind because they've realised that they need to have the capability to test for these foreign diseases in their countries, that they can't rely on other countries to give them their insurance policy.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Neil Byrne, thank you for talking to us. Much appreciated. The argument against the white elephant, from Neil Byrne from the CSIRO's Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong. And, well, words can travel a long distance on radio. They picked that up in Geelong; may have had a bit of help, I think.