Meet the Occupier: UK Health Security Agency


Next in our meet the occupier series is the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), an official government agency that is responsible for protecting England’s public from a range of health threats, including diseases associated with the consumption of food and water.

UKHSA provides food, water and environmental microbiology testing services to local authorities, the NHS and commercial customers to ensure that food and water is microbiologically safe and to assist during the investigation of outbreaks of food and waterborne disease, and this testing is done on our campus.

Formerly known as the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and then Public Health England (PHE), the organisation relocated its northern base to York Biotech Campus in 2012.

When the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak hit England, the government realised it needed more resources to support health protection, which led to the formation of UKHSA in April 2021. PHE transferred into UKHSA the following October. It continues to deal with issues relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as monkey pox and the testing and typing of other bacterial pathogens.

UKHSA has three sites where food, water and environmental testing is done – in York, London, and Wiltshire – with over thirty staff based at the YBC campus. Heather Aird is the Unit Head at the YBC base and has been working in public health microbiology for nearly 30 years. She spoke with us to tell us more about their work.

Can you tell us what UKHSA’s biggest achievement is?

“There isn’t one standout moment, but what’s important to us is the fact that we help protect people’s health, both nationally and internally. By identifying the source of disease outbreaks, we can help ensure that the appropriate actions are taken to prevent any further spread, and this can save lives.”

What happens when there is a disease outbreak?

“When we’re notified of an outbreak, we work closely with local authority partners to collect and test suspected vehicles of disease, whether it’s a food product, water or a sample from the environment. We also liaise with and provide support and guidance to local authorities and to other part of UKHSA to find out where the source of the pathogen is. Once we find the source, local authorities and the Food Standards Agency can take the next steps to stop further spread.

“There was one recent outbreak we worked on where through testing, we found that pork scratchings were linked to 176 cases of salmonella food poisoning, this outbreak left 12 people needing hospital treatment. Isolating the organism from the product and the factory environment and linking this to the cases was pivotal in providing the evidence needed to enable a product recall by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) who recalled the contaminated batches and prevented further infection.”

What projects are you working on at UKHSA at the moment?

“We have just started a survey on a selection of vegan food brands which will be interesting as this will be the first time we have tested plant-based alternatives of this kind to examine their microbiological quality and safety against government guidance and legislative standards.

“When there are new products on the market, it’s important to understand what their potential impact could be on public health. For example, when making vegan cheese one of the processes is to soak nuts at room temperature for long periods of time, grind them up, add cultures and ferment them. There are parts of this process where you could get growth of pathogens, which could lead to disease outbreaks.

“Another important ongoing piece of work is a project called Path-Safe. We work alongside other organisations – including fellow-occupier, Defra – to help safeguard UK food, agriculture and the public by using technological advances to improve the collection, analysis and sharing of health data, ultimately developing better control strategies to save lives.”

Why did you pick YBC as your northern base?

“One of the reasons we chose YBC was the great location. Our UKHSA site is responsible for testing food, water and environmental samples for all local authorities in the North of England and we usually have between two and nine days to isolate the source of a pathogen. Given this, we needed a base with good transport links so samples can get to us as quickly as possible. YBC’s central location in the north provides us with this.

“Access to current and future talent was also a major draw, as Yorkshire is a thriving hub for people in the bioscience industry.”

What’s your favourite thing about being based at YBC?

“For starters, the lab space is fantastic and vital to our work. Previously we owned a building with all the headaches of estates management, at YBC this bit is taken care of so we can just get on with the job.

“We’re also fortunate to be surrounded by lots of green space and it’s nice to be able to have a walk around the site and be in nature on your lunch break. I especially enjoy watching the fish in the lake.”

What’s next for UKHSA?

“At the moment we’re looking to expand our laboratory space and add an additional clean room for our molecular testing to help with growing demand in our services.

“Our team is also growing and we’re looking to recruit for a number of roles, from administration to senior scientists, to help support our work.”

For more information about the UK Health Security Agency please visit their website.