Keeping deadly bugs out

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 10, 2014

DR LEE Fook Kay's work is done in an unusual war zone at Singapore's borders. Enemies invisible to the naked eye are detected swiftly and dealt with.

His job is to prevent the horror that can unfold if the scourge of disease - be it man-made or natural - descends on Singapore. His tools: Chemistry and technology.

Terrorists could bring in deadly bacteria in vials in their suitcases.

Each year, Singapore receives more than 14 million visitors. The counter: X-ray imaging that can spot cargo and luggage that may contain such infectious and toxic substances. Further analysis is done on these items.

More than 100,000 chickens are imported into Singapore daily. Do they contain dangerous viruses? If many chickens have died in the cages or look sick, officers will investigate further.

An even more horrifying scenario is the possibility of a terrorist, infected with the small pox virus, entering Singapore through one of its 26 checkpoints.

The fatal disease was eradicated in 1977, but there is a constant international security alert against this form of attack. The small pox virus can be passed easily from person to person, and can kill in 48 hours.

To protect Singapore, Dr Lee has helped set up a network of laboratories at immigration checkpoints. He also works with Home Team departments to equip them with technological solutions that can be used during security operations.

Singapore's checkpoints have air samplers that can detect the common flu virus as well as the small pox virus or bacterial agents such as anthrax, plague and tularemia.

This is done about two to three times a day, seven days a week.

Bio-surveillance experts at the checkpoints analyse these samples to detect viruses or bacteria in the air using sophisticated laboratory equipment.

As speed is of the essence when dealing with such threats, the laboratory results can be ready in three hours, less than half the time it would take if it was done in a laboratory located far away in the city.

An increase in viruses, bacteria or chemicals in the air would be one indicator that dangerous viruses could have entered Singapore.

If the reading for the flu virus is above the accepted baseline, for example, the checkpoints are alerted to put in place protective measures. The health authorities are also asked to monitor trends.

But even the latest technology has its limitations. The bio-systems at the checkpoints can miss a very sick person if he does not shed a lot of the virus, or stands at a distance from the air samplers.

The system, however, does detect rising levels of infection and helps the authorities plan for the next phase of action.

Dr Lee, the chief science and technology officer at the Ministry of Home Affairs, believes that terrorists would bring in viruses or other lethal weapons if they could. They have carried out suicide bombings, so they are capable of doing worse things.

''Terrorists don't care about human life,'' he says.

Border security business

DR LEE is the government point man for equipping and policing the Republic's borders with the latest technology capable of detecting biochemical-threats.

One of the most sophisticated border systems he helped put in place is the Protective and Analytical Facility at the Tuas checkpoint. Tuas is the only designated land-crossing checkpoint for bringing in hazardous material and poultry into Singapore.

Billed as a world's first when launched in 2009, the state-ofthe- art facility can detect chemicals used by terrorists in their weapons. These chemicals are difficult to detect as they can elude most conventional detectors.

Experts are not 100 per cent sure whether the terrorists have the capability to carry out bioterrorist attacks, he says.

''But terrorists have resorted to using very aggressive means of attacking a (civilian) population, like the 9/11 attack,'' mild- mannered Dr Lee, 54, says with a shudder.

Creating new weapons

HE IS convinced that if established terror groups can get their hands on biological, chemical and radiological weapons and viruses, they will use them. Soon after the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks which killed 3,000 people in the United States, the shell-shocked country had the anthrax- laced letters scare.

Five people died of anthrax poisoning, and about US$50 billion (S$63.5 billion) was spent to develop vaccines and build new laboratories after the anthrax case.

Last year, US President Barack Obama and then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg received letters laced with the lethal poison, ricin.

These methods can be copied by terrorists, he says.

The nerve gas sarin is also within the reach of terrorists, remarks Dr Lee. In 1995, a doomsday cult in Japan, Aum Shinrikyo, released sarin into the Tokyo subway system, wreaking havoc and killing 13 people.

This group also had facilities for producing other nerve agents, but did not share its knowledge. So, this information was not passed on.

Security agencies, he adds, are worried that the advances in science and technology can be exploited by terrorists.

Terrorists could link up with some of the gifted scientists who left the Soviet Union after its fall in 1991. ''Some terrorist groups might pay for their expert knowledge,'' he warns.

Line of duty

DR LEE brings more than 20 years of experience in dealing with chemical, biological and radiological explosives to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which he joined in 2006.

He started his career in 1989 as a research scientist at the Defence Science Organisation, which later became known as the DSO National Laboratories.

When asked what keeps him awake at night, he says: ''All the things terrorists can do to bring in lethal weapons and infectious micro- organisms into Singapore.

''I just hope it never happens here.''

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 10, 2014

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