Budget debate: $90m to be spent on Singapore's first top-level biosafety lab, to be operational by 2025

The upgraded biosafety laboratory will comply with MOH's National Biosafety Standards for Maximum Containment Facilities.
The upgraded biosafety laboratory will comply with MOH's National Biosafety Standards for Maximum Containment Facilities.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Singapore will get its first highest-level biosafety containment lab ready by 2025 - the first such facility in South-east Asia - to prepare for the next big pandemic or biological threat, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Monday (March 1).

Some $90 million will be spent to upgrade the capabilities of the national defence research agency DSO National Laboratories to biosafety level 4 (BSL-4), the topmost level of biosafety precautions globally, said Dr Ng during the debate over the Ministry of Defence's (Mindef) budget in Parliament.

Viruses are classified into Risk Groups 1 to 4, according to their transmissibility and lethality. Current facilities within DSO National Laboratories can safely handle Risk Group 3 viruses like Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Covid-19, said Mindef.

"Many developed countries already have labs with the highest biosafety level - BSL-4 - built many years ago. Since 2015, countries in Asia like China, Japan and Korea have also built such BSL-4 labs. In Asean, there are none," said Dr Ng.

Some other BSL-4 laboratories around the world include the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Germany, and the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas, United States.

"Mindef will therefore invest about $90 million for DSO to work with MOH (Ministry of Health) to upgrade our facilities within DSO to the highest bio-safety level" said Dr Ng.

BSL-4 labs require more stringent levels of air separation, and must have the ability to quickly shut down and isolate the facility when needed, he noted.

Upgrading the DSO National Laboratories facilities will give Singapore its own capabilities to safely handle, assess and develop countermeasures against more lethal and infectious viruses in future, said Mindef.

The laboratory will be used to isolate and culture new emerging infectious disease pathogens and known high-risk pathogens, to develop diagnostics and solutions such as antibody therapeutics, it added.

Dr Ng said DSO National Laboratories will work with MOH to carry out the upgrading of its facilities, and bring in third-party and overseas experts to advise on the entire process, including designing, construction and the periodic validation of the systems.

The upgraded biosafety laboratory will comply with MOH's National Biosafety Standards for Maximum Containment Facilities, established in May 2019, covering the design principles, management and operating policies, good practices and performance testing, said Mindef.

A qualified consultant with relevant experience will also be engaged to ensure the new facility adheres to international standards and guidelines from the World Health Organisation and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new BSL-4 laboratory will have enhanced safety features, such as requiring every worker to don personal protective equipment such as positive-pressure protective suits.

Other biosafety measures to prevent leakage of pathogens from the new lab include double high efficiency particulate air (Hepa) filtration of air and exhaust purging, double pipe containment and sterilisation of liquids before discharge, and heat sterilisation of all solid waste before incineration.

There will also be multiple air locks and negative pressure in the laboratories to ensure directional air flow, and an air corridor around the Maximum Containment Facility to serve as a safety barrier.

In addition, the lab will have safe shutdown capabilities so that if a mechanical failure occurs, neutral pressure will be maintained with no air movement out of the facility.

In his speech, Dr Ng said that future pandemics or biological attacks may be worse than Covid-19, and Singapore cannot "outsource" its response or call another country for help.

"It would be foolish to depend on others and we need to build capabilities within Singapore to protect ourselves," he said.

Dr Ng said that over the years, Singapore has kept up investments to maintain 40 bio-personnel in DSO National Laboratories and about 250 doctors and paramedical staff in the Medical Corps. After Sars, it also built more secure biological labs in DSO National Laboratories.

This long-term and steady investment in bio-defence and medical capabilities was vindicated by Mindef and the Singapore Armed Force's ability to respond quickly to Covid-19, such as when DSO managed to get polymerase chain reaction tests ready in January last year, the same month the virus entered Singapore.

"Had we not learnt the right lessons following Sars, sarin, anthrax, and other lethal chemical and biological incidents over the years, DSO would not have had the facilities, let alone the people and expertise to produce tests and other breakthroughs, when Covid-19 invaded our shores," said Dr Ng.

Four risk levels of biosafety labs

Biosafety labs are categorised based on the risk levels of viruses which they are equipped to handle safely.

Singapore is set to get a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab, the highest level of biosafety precautions, by 2025. It will be the first in South-east Asia to meet these standards.

Here are the four risk levels, as outlined by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention:

BSL-1: Viruses handled here are not known to consistently make healthy adults sick. One example of such a virus is E. coli.

Work in such labs can be performed on an open lab table, with standard microbiological practices followed. Personal protective equipment (PPE) - such as lab coats, gloves and eye protection - is worn as needed.

There must be a sink for workers to wash their hands, and doors separating the working space from the rest of the facility.

BSL-2: Viruses at this level pose moderate hazards to lab personnel and the environment, and are associated with diseases of varying severity.

Access to these labs is restricted when work is being done.

Appropriate PPE is worn, and any procedures that can cause infection from aerosols or splashes are performed within a biological safety cabinet.

A proper method of decontamination must be available for proper equipment disposal. The lab must have self-closing doors, with a sink and eyewash readily available.

BSL-3: Viruses here can cause serious or potentially lethal diseases through respiratory transmission. Examples include the bacteria or viruses that cause tuberculosis, severe acute respiratory syndrome and Covid-19.

In such labs, personnel are under medical surveillance and may receive immunisations for the microbes they work with. Access to the lab is restricted and controlled at all times, and apart from PPE, respirators may be required too.

A hands-free sink and eyewash must be located near the exit, with access to the lab through two sets of self-closing and locking doors.

Exhaust air cannot be recirculated, and the lab must have sustained directional airflow by drawing air into the laboratory from clean areas towards potentially contaminated areas.

BSL-4: This is the highest level of biosafety. Viruses here are dangerous and exotic, posing a high risk of aerosol-transmitted infections. Infections are frequently fatal and without treatment or vaccines.

An example of a virus investigated in a BSL-4 lab is Ebola.

Personnel have to change their clothes before entering, and shower upon exiting. All materials also have to be decontaminated before leaving. All work must be done within an appropriate biological safety cabinet, or while wearing a full-body, air-supplied, positive-pressure suit.

The lab must be in a separate building, or in an isolated and restricted zone of a building.