At the beginning of September, a new SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) case was found in Singapore. Later, an investigation conducted by 11 experts from both Singapore and the World Health Organization (WHO) proved that the patient contracted SARS in a lab of the Environmental Health Institute (EHI) in Singapore, where he had been working. The EHI lab has been carrying out research on one strain of the SARS coronavirus.
"This incident has exposed the inadequacy of bio-safety level three (BSL3) labs in Singapore and safety protection facilities," the investigation report said.
WHO issued a warning in Geneva that SARS was likely to resurge in November due to a lack of reliable safety measures currently in some countries' medical labs.
After the outbreak of SARS, scientific research across China has been largely strengthened. Under such circumstances, BSL3 labs have been hastily put into use in succession. Are these labs are safe or not? A reporter from Dongfang Morning News based in Shanghai recently interviewed experts on the issue.
Experts in China have confirmed there is not yet one SARS patient infected in a virus research lab in China.
According to Zhu Qingyu, director of the Microbiology Testing Center under the Academy of Military Medical Science, although the chances are slim, it is possible to contract SARS via the labs. And although there are still no clear requirements yet, it is very necessary to research SARS within the BSL3 labs due to the strong infective nature of the virus itself.
It is reported that various harmful microbes must be handled under different physical protection conditions. Labs are divided into four bio-safety levels according to their protection degrees. The BSL3 lab belongs to second class bio-safety protection. It is mainly used on microbes and their toxins, which may cause serious or potentially lethal disease as a result of exposure through inhalation.
Experts are worried about that physical protection standards of many labs engaged in scientific research of SARS cannot reach the BSL3 standard. Zhu Qingyu had appealed many times to relative departments to attach greater attention to the safety protection and control of SARS labs. "Some research on SARS has been conducted in ordinary rooms. After obtaining samples from clinics, some researchers just casually take them to labs to test. This is really quite dangerous," said Zhu.
Due to the huge expense, BSL3 labs in China are kind of a waste. It is reported that it takes two million yuan (US$241,648) to build a BSL3 lab. However, compared with the expenditure on daily maintenance, the figure is not so large. "It takes over 1,000 yuan (US$121) a day for the maintenance of a BSL3 lab. Many organizations can afford building it, not using it," disclosed one expert. He said that the BSL3 lab will turn out to be useless once the maintenance stops.
Before the outbreak of SARS, there were no more than 10 BSL3 labs around the country. Some experts estimated the number had greatly increased after the outbreak of SARS.
Many experts interviewed thought that the BSL3 lab is only one of many measures in the safety control of labs. Compared with the hardware facilities of labs, software and management are much more important.
According to Professor Zhu Qingyu, the BSL3 lab refers only that the lab is qualified in physical protection. In fact, with regard to safety, people come first. "Without good scientific quality and sense of responsibility, as well as strict management of scientific research organizations, the BSL3 labs are useless," said Zhu Qingyu.
What experts are more concerned about at present is that most BSL3 labs in China were built in areas of dense population and are not under a unified management.
Zhu Qingyu said the safety problem of the labs now has caused the attention of the nation. The Ministry of Science and Technology has organized experts to inspect the safety problem of the SARS research labs many times.
(China.org.cn translated by Wang Qian, October 29, 2003)