HC Deb 20 October 1999 vol 336 cc585-7W
Mr. Derek Twigg

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will set out(a) the results of his Department's funded research programme into the possible interactions between the vaccines and nerve agent pre-treatments that were administered to British troops during the Gulf conflict and (b) details of any other of his Department's research relevant to the health effects of organophosphates and carbonates, including nerve agents, organophosphate pesticides and nerve agent pre-treatments. [95072]

Mr. Spellar

The initial phase of the research programme involving a preliminary toxicological study of the effects of the co-administration of vaccines and nerve agent pre-treatments (NAPS) in guinea pigs has recently been completed at CBD Porton Down. An outline of the study's findings was presented at a conference on research into Gulf veterans' illnesses in Washington DC in June. This initial stage of the overall research programme, which was primarily designed to help inform the design of more sophisticated longer-term studies, does not report any remarkable findings on the administration of the combination of vaccines and nerve agent treatments examined.

The results of the study were reviewed by the Independent Panel, which oversees the vaccine interactions research programme, at a meeting earlier this year. The Panel agreed that the researchers should proceed with publication of the results of this initial study through the appropriate scientific channels. The Panel also agreed to more extensive rodent studies, to be carried out at the National Institute of Biological Standards and Controls, and further studies at CBD Porton Down which will include sophisticated techniques to examine any subtle long-term neurophysiological and cognitive effects of the administration of vaccines and NAPS.

I have arranged to have a copy of the information presented at the Washington meeting placed in the Library of the House. A more detailed paper is being prepared for submission to a peer-reviewed scientific journal and will be published as soon as possible. This information will be placed on the Gulf veterans' illnesses page on the MOD website in due course.

I am also today placing in the Library of the House copies of the Defence Scientific Advisory Council's Working Party Report on the Long Term Neurotoxicity of the Anticholinesterases, together with the Ministry of Defence's response to the Report. I am also placing in the Library three previously unpublished studies by CBD Porton Down, and one already published, which are referred to in the Report.

The Report, which is a review of existing literature and research, concludes that there is robust evidence that high doses of organophosphates may have long term toxic effects on the peripheral nervous system; that there is more limited information about the long term toxic effects of low doses of organophosphates on the central nervous system; and that there is little evidence that the prophylactic use of carbamates (such as NAPS) is associated with any long term adverse health effects, although this should be further explored. We hope that it will be a useful source of information on the long-term effects of these compounds. The Ministry of Defence welcomes the Report. We accept the recommendations for further research.

As the MOD's response to the Report makes clear, we continue to carry out a range of research into the health effects of organophosphates and carbamates, including nerve agents and nerve agent pre-treatments. In addition to the research set out there, work is underway at CBD Porton Down to investigate the question of whether these compounds might have an effect on the immune system. This work, which is following up research reported in the open literature, is in its very early stages and we cannot yet say whether there is any such effect, or what the implications of that might be. We intend to make public the findings of this work as soon as possible, as each part of it reaches scientific maturity.