SINGAPORE: DSO National Laboratories will upgrade its biosafety lab to handle the most lethal and transmissible viruses, allowing Singapore to study and develop countermeasures against severe diseases and biological threats.
The upgraded lab will come with more stringent safety features and is expected to be located at the DSO facility at Marina Hill, with operations starting by end-2025. MINDEF will spend about S$90 million on the upgrading.
This comes as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on worldwide, with scientists warning the world could in the future be hit by a more severe “Disease X” – a new, unknown disease that is highly infectious, deadly and mutates easily.
"Can we plan on the basis that future pandemics or biological attacks will not be worse than COVID-19? Or can we outsource to all or call another country for help when it happens?" Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in his ministry's Committee of Supply speech on Monday (Mar 1).
"I think Members of this House will unanimously say, surely not. It would be foolish to depend on others and we need to build capabilities within Singapore to protect ourselves."
Viruses are classified into Risk Groups 1 to 4 according to their transmissibility and lethality. The current DSO lab can safely handle Risk Group 3 viruses like SARS and COVID-19, but not a Risk Group 4 virus like Ebola.
“Higher risk group viruses would require facilities equipped with more stringent safety features to study and develop solutions to counter them,” the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said in a factsheet on Monday.
“The (upgraded) laboratory will be used to isolate and culture new emerging infectious disease pathogens and known high-risk pathogens.
“These cultures can be immediately used for the development and testing of diagnostics as well as developing countermeasures such as antibody therapeutics.”
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For instance, the current lab has conducted research to help Singapore develop antibodies in its fight against COVID-19.
The upgraded lab will come with biosafety measures like multiple air locks and negative pressure in the laboratory, heat sterilisation of solid wastes before incineration, and a “safe shutdown” ability to stop air from escaping the laboratory in the event of mechanical failure.
Similar Risk Group 4 labs around the world include the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, and the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin.
Dr Ng said ASEAN does not have Risk Group 4 labs, while Singapore has Risk Group 3 labs, which prior to this pandemic, were assessed as adequate protection.
"MINDEF will therefore invest about S$90 million for DSO to work with MOH to upgrade our facilities within DSO to the highest bio-safety level," Dr Ng added.
MINDEF said DSO’s lab will comply with the Ministry of Health’s National Biosafety Standards for Maximum Containment Facilities, established in May 2019.
This covers the lab’s design principles, management and operating policies, good practices and performance testing.
“A qualified consultant with relevant experience will also be engaged to assist in the design of the laboratory to ensure adherence to international standards and guidelines from the World Health Organisation and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention,” MINDEF said.