Exclusive: Inside the secretive Porton Down lab as it tackles the Covid-19 pandemic

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen

It’s not the kind of place you turn up without an appointment - the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) at Porton Down is one of the most secure, and at times secretive, places in the country.

It is, Professor Tim Atkins tells me, the only place in the UK that is allowed to make samples of chemical weapons, including nerve agents.

Those are used for research into defence against chemical or biological attacks on British forces, or indeed Britain itself.

"Do they ever leave this site?" I ask. The reply is swift, "No".

ITV News has been granted rare access to Dstl’s High Containment Labs at the heart of Porton Down.

This is where samples of some of the most dangerous pathogens in the world are kept.

To reach the containment facility we are escorted past several sets of wire fences and a number of checkpoints. We reach a modern looking building so sensitive that even parts of the exterior cannot be filmed.

Inside, past more layers of security, are the Containment Labs themselves. These are designed to allow research on some of the illnesses you least want to contract; Ebola, Bubonic Plague, Marburg Virus.

And now of course SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus.

On the day we visit, one of the labs is free. We enter, one by one, through a series of doors. These maintain negative air pressure in the lab; the pressure inside is lower than the pressure outside so that if anything nasty does escape it should be blown back inside.

ITV News was given rare access to Porton Down's containment labs. Credit: ITV News

Between the doors a room marked ‘Emergency Shower’ is a reminder of the risks facing scientists who work here.

Inside the lab I meet Amanda Phelps, a virologist, who like many here turned her hand to the study of the new coronavirus.

As she shows me how a biosafety cabinet works, Amanda says she isn’t nervous around dangerous new pathogens.

"There is sometimes a level of, more anticipation, excitement I would say than a concern for safety because our training, or engineering controls are absolutely one hundred percent.”

Coronavirus isn’t as lethal as some of the other viruses studied here. The Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens classes it as a level 3 risk. The most dangerous, like Ebola, are level 4.

The difficulty with coronavirus is how easily it spreads. So at Dstl the work is focused on stopping the spread; understanding disinfectants and transmission between surfaces (they’ve created an artificial ‘finger’ to see how much it picks up).

Dstl are also trialling of diagnostic ‘wearable tech’ for coronavirus.

Watches developed at Porton Down may soon be able to detect when a wearer has caught an infection. Credit: ITV News

They are exploring whether commercially available heart monitors and smart watches can detect changes in heart rate, temperature and blood oxygen levels to indicate possible illness.

Perhaps even before the wearer has begun to feel unwell.

All this of course goes on alongside the more secretive work that Porton Down is known for - the study of chemical weapons, including nerve agents like Novichok, which was first identified at Dstl after its use against Sergei Scripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

Work about which the scientists at Porton Down are necessarily much more discreet.