Green Cross hosted a side event to the Meeting of the States Parties for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention on Thursday, 17 December to talk about how to keep laboratories safe and secure in developing countries. These facilities – essential links in the biosecurity chain – can be under-resourced, lacking in procedures and staffed with under-trained personnel in areas with weak public health systems. In today’s connected world, that’s a serious cause for concern. Paul Walker, Green Cross Director of Environmental Security and Sustainability, chaired the discussion with four specialists working in different regions of the world.
“We can’t underestimate the risks,” said Dr. Leila Macedo, President of the Brazilian Biosafety Association. “Microbes do not respect borders, so cooperation is the only way forward.“
Macedo described the challenges to biosafety and security in Brazil, including the increasing complications that climate change is introducing to the spread of diseases – pathogens are now appearing in previously unaffected regions, which are not prepared for them.
Green Cross Switzerland’s Reinhard Gasser shared some of the organization’s experience supporting the safe disposal of bio-medical waste in Central Asia.
“There is inadequate medical waste management all along the waste processing chain (in parts of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan),” said Gasser. “Lack of adequate waste management practices, lack of expertise, lack of regulation. And this is not just a theoretical issue, there are incidents. Medical waste is often just dumped in public landfills, and there are people who scavenge from those same landfills.”
Dr. Louise Bezuidenhout, from South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, said that there is a desperate need for more resources as well as training and support for staff in African laboratories. standards, regulations, and the capacity to meet them all need to be put in place.
“Our 2013 survey actually compiled the first list of facilities (in South Africa) used for bio-medical research,” said Bezuidenhout. “It found the level of awareness among staff about safety issues and dual-use substances was very low. There is a need for mentorship of younger scientists, who feel a lack of guidance on how they are supposed to operate. There is also a need for better protection of the scientists themselves – the survey found that many believed they would not be supported if they were to raise biosafety concerns.“
In Brazil, the difficulty of trying to retrain staff has led to a greater focus on the future.
“We are building a culture of biosafety, starting with high school students,” said Macedo. “We are making sure they are trained, from the start, to work safely in a lab.“
All of the speakers emphasized the importance of training, to address what Gasser called the “whole waste lifecycle” when giving an example of civil society’s activities in the area. Green Cross provided disinfectant equipment to the City Women’s Hospital in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (among others), and staff training was an essential part of making the project work. The hospital did not have staff specifically trained to disinfect and dispose of waste until Green Cross intervened.
“These issues are all connected,” concluded Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, from the U.S. Department of State. “They are all tied into the challenge of preserving biological safety and security.”