Inspection raises biosafety concerns in Asia-Pacific containment labs

A recent anonymous inspection of biocontainment laboratories in developing counties in the Asia-Pacific region has raised concerns among experts because of the significant number of deficiencies it found in biosafety protocols and equipment.

An examination of dozens of labs revealed that nearly one-third of the hoods used to protect researchers from deadly pathogens did not function as intended. In one instance, only a shower curtain enclosed a table used routinely to dissect the brains of rabid animals, according to Nature.

A group of bio-risk experts recently met in London's Chatham House to discuss the growing concern. They said that if such deficiencies were found in Western labs, those labs would not be allowed to operate, but in parts of the developing world, the results of the inspection are a symptom of a potential biosafety crisis.

"The strength of a chain is based on its weakest link, and developing countries are the weakest link," Teck-Mean Chua, the former president of the Asia-Pacific Biosafety Association based in Singapore, said, Nature reports.

As Western scientists begin to place an increasing emphasis on bioafety concerns, the complaints about inadequate laboratory protocol in the developing world are beginning to attract attention.

Nigel Lightfoot, an associate fellow at the Center on Global Health Security at Chatham House, said that stringent biosafety procedures and expensive equipment are often unworkable in developing countries, where scientists need to work with deadly pathogens in order to protect public health but lack critical infrastructure needs.

"When you don't have any electricity, the answer is not to build a very high-security laboratory," Lightfoot said, Nature reports. "You've got to move away from the costly bells-and-whistles solutions to what is practical."

Lightfoot said that it may be necessary to create dual standards, an idea that some believe will not sit well with Western scientists who feel over-burdened with regulations, as well as with scientists in the developing world who feel they could be left with unsafe labs.