Archived news articles - 2005

The Straits Times, April 12, 2005

Biosafety: Life term, $1m fine proposed

By Chang Ai-Lien

ANYONE using a biological agent as a potential weapon faces life behind bars and a $1 million fine under proposed new Singaporean laws.

The accidental release of a highly infectious bug from a research laboratory would also result in severe penalties.

The Health Ministry has drafted a new Biological Agents and Toxins Bill to tackle the threat of bioterrorism and biomedical research laboratory accidents.

The Bill would regulate everything from the possession and import to the transportation and disposal of biological agents and toxins. This would prevent them being misused and shield the public from any exposure.

The Health Ministry's director of medical services K. Satku yesterday said: 'Sars was a very strong message to us that there are still deadly pathogens out there.'

After the outbreak was quelled, there were still Sars infections linked to lax safety procedures in laboratories here, and in Taiwan and China. This reinforced the ministry's resolve to set up a comprehensive biosafety network to protect lab workers and the community at large, added Professor Satku.

'Knowing what to do is not good enough. At the end of the day, they must internalise these things so it becomes a habit.'

So, for example, operators of facilities handling high-risk agents must set up biosafety committees, and their labs need to be certified.

Regular audits will be done by the ministry to make sure that laws are followed and safety standards are met.

Approval is required to possess and import such items. Even drivers transporting them have to be specially licensed, and their vehicles labelled prominently.

Different levels of control, and penalties, are applied to around 400 substances - depending on how deadly they are, how easily they spread and their potential to be biological weapons.

The most lethal agents - including smallpox and the ebola and nipah viruses - will be banned from Singapore unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as an outbreak.

Even then, safety will come first and work must be done in maximum containment facilities.

As for the next level of high-risk agents, such as the Sars virus, five labs here are certified to handle them.

But with the increased focus on such research here, the number of Biosafety Level 3 (BSL 3) labs is expected to double by year's end.

Such labs here already work according to international guidelines, and the punishments are meant to deter those who blatantly disregard the new framework.

Dr Ling Ai Ee, senior consultant at the pathology department in Singapore General Hospital, which runs a BSL 3 lab, said: 'Most labs are already fully compliant - we don't want to kill ourselves.

'But we're very happy because the Act is formalising what we have been doing.'

Copies of the draft Bill, available online at, have been sent to 89 institutions with laboratory facilities and courier service providers.

Feedback should reach the ministry by May 14. Following consultation, the Act could take effect later this year.

Singapore Press Holdings Limited The Straits Times (Singapore).Copyright 2005