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Explainer: biosafety and biosecurity in South Africa

South Africa needs to ensure that it is equipped to deal with bioterrorism attacks and possible laboratory outbreaks. Mariana Bazo/Reuters

In the scientific world, laboratories provide the crucial space for scientists to work and test hypotheses that they are working on. There are dangers involved, though. Laboratories may contain many hazardous chemicals and the spread of these could have devastating effects on the environment, humans, livestock and agriculture.

It is imperative that the necessary precautions are taken to ensure that hazardous material and potentially dangerous pathogens are handled safely and securely.

Biosafety generally means the adherence to good laboratory practices and procedures. It also refers to the use of appropriate safety equipment and facilities in order to ensure the safe handling, storage and disposal of biological material. This includes pathogens – infectious agents that cause disease.

Measures to prevent harm caused by the accidental exposure to harmful pathogens and toxins fall under the term biosafety. Physical containment barriers and practices are mandatory. This is to prevent unintentional exposure to biological agents. They are also required to prevent accidental release into the environment.

Biosecurity refers to the misuse or abuse of biological material. This includes pathogens and their products. There need to be ways to protect their misuse from causing harm to humans, livestock or crops.

Measures need to be implemented to control any harm in the event of exposure. This includes the protection, control and accountability for harmful biological materials – specifically in laboratories, in order to prevent their unauthorised access, loss or theft.

Bio-risk assessment is the quantitative and/or qualitative assessment of the possibility of a particular biological event. This includes natural disease outbreaks such as Ebola, accidents or the deliberate misuse of biological agents. The type of biological event that may adversely affect the health of humans, animals and crops.

Why it is relevant to South Africa

The use of biological material for harmful purposes is becoming an increasing threat. Even though it is not widely publicised, there have been incidents of both unintentional and deliberate exposure to harmful biological agents. Some of the most common agents used in bioterrorism include sarin neurotoxin, ricin and anthrax.

Existing legislation and capacity to monitor and deal with these types of problems is fragmented in South Africa. This is scattered across a number of departments such as Agriculture, Health, and Trade and Industry. This makes reporting and monitoring very difficult.

It would be appropriate for one department, such as Science and Technology, to take overall responsibility for the implementation of biorisk assessment legislation in South Africa.

South Africa has excellent ethical guidelines in place for human and animal experimentation. But there is a lack of education and training in research ethics for life scientists working with harmful biological material.

There is a conspicuous absence of a database of both public and commercial laboratories working on such material within South Africa. There is generally a disconcerting low level of awareness among life scientists about national and international conventions, laws and regulations related to their research.

How vulnerable is South Africa?

South Africa has largely been spared the threats of bioterrorism. But given that South Africa is the gateway to Africa and the transit route to many Western and Eastern destinations, we will not be immune from such threats forever.

All scientists in South Africa need to be aware of the dangers that stem from laboratories. Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Research and development in the life sciences are crucial in driving the bio-economy in South Africa. It is also imperative that such research is conducted in a safe, secure and ethically sound manner. There is a general attitude that “this does not apply to me or my work” or “my work cannot be used for harmful purposes by scientists”.

Creating awareness and accepting that the misuse of scientific technology is a reality is in the interest of both South Africans and the life science community.

Although the South African legislative framework is robust and comprehensive, it suffers from several limitations and challenges. These include:

  • Lack of coherence in the categorisation of pathogens;

  • The lack of harmonisation of guidelines; and

  • The deficiency in infrastructure and capacity to meet the challenges for implementation of the legislation.

South Africa also has a complex set of regulations governing the detection, identification, control, and prevention of human, animal and plant diseases caused by infectious agents. There is a definite need to develop a single, locally relevant list of infectious agents. There is also a need for their control and eradication. This list should be dynamic and regularly updated.

One should not be alarmist, but given the increasing threats elsewhere in the world, South Africa should not be complacent. The country should rather be proactive in putting in place preventative measures to protect its population. Criminal elements intending to use technology for harmful purposes are always a threat anywhere in the word.

Find the official Academy of Science of South Africa report here.

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