New biosafety laboratory to open at NUS

New biosafety laboratory to open at NUS
Researcher Tsai Chen-Yu practising how to handle biological agents.

A new biosafety laboratory, one of the nation's largest, will be up and running by next Friday to boost Singapore's defences against outbreaks of infectious diseases - including Ebola.

Based at the National University of Singapore (NUS), the 650 sq m lab will develop vaccines and treatments for influenza, tuberculosis and other tropical diseases.

Its opening is timely, with Ebola having killed nearly 4,000 people in Africa since March and infecting two others in the United States and Spain, one fatally.

It is one of seven here designed to biosafety level 3 (BSL-3), the second-highest rating for such labs.

This means that scientists there can work safely on bacteria and viruses that may be fatal to humans, but for which treatments exist.

While there is currently no proven cure for Ebola, the lab has additional safety features such as air-handling units that allow scientists to work safely on the deadly virus.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) is known to have at least one other laboratory equipped to identify Ebola cases.

Construction of the new lab was funded by the MOH, NUS and National Medical Research Council, though they have not revealed its cost.

The lab boasts intrusion alarms, round- the-clock closed-circuit television monitoring, and a security system that grants access by verifying the vein profile of an authorised person's hand.

All waste from the lab will be sterilised under extreme heat and pressure before being collected by an authorised hazardous waste collector.

Filters remove pathogens from the air, while any water used is first collected and sterilised before being discharged.

The lab's director, Associate Professor Thomas Dick from NUS' department of microbiology, said that 11 years ago when Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - hit Singapore, the country did not have enough such labs to handle infectious agents.

"Singapore being a densely populated city with a huge number of people... and being at the crossroads of international traffic, is particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases," he said. "Hence (it) must... be prepared to deal with such threats."

This article was first published on Oct 11, 2014.
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