Inside The Defence Laboratories At Porton Down Battling COVID-19

Forces News has been given special access inside the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) in Wiltshire to learn more about the work of scientists there during the coronavirus crisis.

The facility at Porton Down on Salisbury Plain carries out some of the most highly classified work to safeguard Britain's security interests, and is one of the UK's biggest capabilities for handling dangerous pathogens.

Research has been conducted there for more than 100 years, although DSTL was not officially formed until 2001.

The Ministry of Defence and Home Office are among its customers, spending more than £600 million last year.

The job of DSTL scientists is to respond to any catastrophe and have worked on a number of cases including the re-designing of the British Army's Foxhound vehicle to reduce deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the decontamination of Salisbury after the nerve agent attack in March 2018.

When the coronavirus pandemic began, defence scientists were tasked with helping with the crisis, including finding out more about COVID-19 and ways to stop its spread.

Due to the classified nature of the work carried out at the facility, filming was restricted and staff identities have been protected.

'Professor Tim', who has worked on chemical, biological and radiological cases for more than 20 years, said the DSTL at Porton Down handles "pathogens such as plague, anthrax and the virus that causes COVID-19 currently".

"We’re doing a variety of tests but really they centre around characterising [coronavirus] itself and understanding how it behaves when it’s aerosolised, how it behaves, for example, when it deposits on surfaces.

"How long does it survive? What’s the effect of light? What’s the effect of humidity?"

The labs at the DSTL are held under negative air pressure to prevent the escape of the virus. 

The scientists proceed with extreme caution, handling COVID-19 cultures in sealed glove boxes.

Scientists are particularly cautious with the virus, handling COVID-19 cultures in sealed glove boxes.
Scientists are particularly cautious with the virus, handling COVID-19 cultures in sealed glove boxes.

DSTL experts have also been deployed across the country to help meet the Government's coronavirus testing target.

'Emma', who was part of the team to be deployed, said: "It’s a totally different kind of pressure - the turnaround time that they manage to achieve is phenomenal, especially considering the amount of samples they’re getting in.

"It’s really pushing, I think, science as an industry to their limits to develop all these new ways of working and new tests to keep evolving to meet the demands that the country needs."

Protecting frontline workers has formed another big part of DSTL's work since the outbreak.

When ambulance services reported decontamination of their vehicles taking too long, staff designed a new way to cut times down to just minutes.

Meanwhile, when the country faced a national shortage of the bitter and sweet-tasting sprays needed to test the fit of face masks, the labs found a way to plug the gap overnight.

"It’s not particularly difficult chemistry, if I may, but it’s something that we’re not used to doing here," Professor Tim said.

"We had to establish a capability very quickly, indeed, in order to produce these solutions in extremis.

"We, to date, have manufactured about 21,000 units of fit test solution.

"I’m reliably told that those solutions have enabled capabilities like the London Nightingale Hospital to become operational."

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