Archived news articles - 2005

The Straits Times, April 12, 2005

Biosafety laws to instil research confidence

High standards of lab safety, security will be a draw for top scientists

THE new laws governing biological agents and toxins will boost the confidence of international scientists seeking to work with the 100 or so laboratories and groups here that deal in them.

The draft laws aim for a culture of safety rather than being a witch-hunt, stressed the Health Ministry yesterday when it unveiled the 73-page draft Biological Agents and Toxins Bill.

'Currently, there are no such penalties for such labs; the legislation is to prevent an accident from taking place and to ensure staff are adequately trained,' said Mr Koh Peng Keng, the ministry's senior director of operations.

An accident of this sort occurred at Singapore's Environmental Health Institute (EHI) in 2003, when a National University of Singapore researcher caught Sars there.

The proposed laws call for those operating facilities to be responsible for complying with safety standards and security measures.

So, for example, the operator must make sure that no biological or toxin waste is discharged into the environment.

Penalties depend on which rules are flouted and the risk level of substances involved.

For transporting such substances by mail or public transport, for example, penalties can be a maximum of 10 years' jail and a $100,000 fine for certain classes, or a maximum of one year in prison and a $10,000 fine in other cases.

Mr Koh's team will be in charge of biosafety when the laws are in place.

The institute's new head, Dr Ng Lee Ching, said: 'It's a big responsibility, knowing you could be sent to jail if you do not do things properly.'

She is chairman of the technical working committee on national biosafety standards, which made recommendations to the Health Ministry.

However, Dr Ng added that having well-recognised biosecurity and biosafety standards in place would also boost international confidence in research work here.

Increasing such collaborations is essential for Singapore to gain ground in its nascent biomedical sector.

With the proposed Act, Singapore follows other developed countries such as the United States and Britain, which have already established separate laws on biosafety and biosecurity.

Top British cancer researcher, Sir David Lane, head of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology here, said that such laws had to balance between keeping research safe, without discouraging it.

'It's important that they are realistic and not too restrictive, so that they do not stop work that is vital,' he told The Straits Times. 'But scientists are human beings and they do make mistakes, so unfortunately you have to legislate for the stupid.'

The EHI, which stopped its high-safety-level research after the Sars case, plans to resume it later this year when it moves to new premises at the biomedical hub, Biopolis, in Buona Vista.

The highest safety-level labs here - there are five - work on the stringent biosafety level (BSL) 3 standards, which are needed for research on Sars, West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis, for example. Most other labs here, which deal with less dangerous agents, follow the lower BSL 2 standards.

Apart from an annual certification process, such labs will also be audited to ensure they have the proper documentation, and that safety practices are in place, Mr Koh said.

While the ministry is still building up its own expertise and hiring safety officers for the audits, the different facilities here will be audited by other comparable labs in a 'cross-audit' process, he said.

The laws will also allow for a complete inventory of exactly what high-risk agents are being worked on here, something that's not clear now.


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