By Victor Bwire
It is feared that Kenya is at risk of a biological event, whether accidental, intentional, or naturally occurring, due to the prevalence of dangerous biological pathogens found in health facilities and academic/research institutions, which present serious threats to national, regional and global stability.
The exposure to biological threats arises from the fact that not enough measures including legislation, standards and capacity building to mitigate the likely possibility of a biological threat in the country have been done in Country?
How safe are science and health laboratories in Kenya against and cushioned against being agents of biological threats? Have our health and science research institutions and universities invested in preparing the country in the biosecurity and bio preparedness spheres?
Health laboratories in facilities including Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Kenyatta National Hospital, Moi Referral and Teaching Hospital and universities where health sciences are taught use and store a lot of chemicals, which if misused, or are mishandled, could be used as weapons of mass destruction while at the same time, people working in the laboratories could turn out to be potential agents of doom, or they use the knowledge for violent extremism reasons.
Dr James Nyikal of the Parliamentary Health Committee and Amos Kimunya from the Education Committee were optimistic that Parliament was going to move fast and enact the Biosecurity and Biosafety law, which was now at the Technical Committee of the National Assembly.
The Members of Parliament expressed fears that the continued absence of a legal framework to cushion the country against biological threats emanating from chemicals and knowledge stored in health and academic research institutions exposed Kenyans to a lot of danger. A biosecurity survey in Kenya carried out in 2015 found that labs in Kenya store at least 16 dangerous biological pathogens, less than 50 per cent of the labs have an inventory list while two Labs reported that dangerous biological agents had disappeared from its stores without trace.
Representatives from the Government of Kenya, the Parliament of Kenya, Universities and international partners attending the meeting discussed on the many aspects of biosecurity threats in Kenya and how prepared our health laboratories are, and concluded that more needs to be done in that area urgently to cushion the country.
The National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) and the Commission for University Education (CUE) in partnership with the Centre for Biosecurity and Biopreparedness (CBB) held a high level meeting on biosecurity to coincide with the 7thScience week in Kenya held in Nairobi under the support of the Government of Denmark.
The meeting heard from academicians how some of their students became agents of destruction through using laboratory acquired knowledge and chemicals to do criminal activities including reports from the police that they have arrested medical students suspected of carrying out a biological attack in Nairobi in 2016. Conclusions were made that universities have a very big role in mitigating the risks of biological threats through a number ways: through educating their laboratory personnel and in fostering a strong biosecurity culture given that university laboratories store dangerous biological pathogens.
There exists a Kenya and Denmark partnership government to government established in 2014 after the Government of Kenya in 2013 requested international assistance to strengthen the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention, including through the implementation of biosecurity measures.
The partnership includes technical support and support to workshops and high-level meetings (no direct financial support). The content of the support includes legislative development CBB supported the development of a draft bioscience bill that, if approved by Cabinet and Parliament, establishes a biosecurity agency. Other parts of the partnership include capacity building where CBB is working with NACOSTI to strengthen biosecurity at universities.
To this end, CBB/ NACOSTI has conducted 8 workshops at 8 key life-science universities, training close to 450 students, researchers and lecturers and will follow up on the 8 university workshops with conducting an advanced workshop for the 8 Vice-Chancellors together with two biosecurity focal points appointed by each university.
In addition, CBB is working with Ministry of Health to strengthen biopreparedness where CBB has organized a roundtable discussion for Kenyan preparedness stakeholders, conducted a Kenya preparedness assessment and developed a concept note and work plan for activities. Universities and the Ministry of Defence are being provided with technical assistance.