November 28, 2004

New Regulations on Lab Safety Launched

New regulations that took effect on Saturday prohibit labs from experimenting on risky pathogenic microbes without approval.

The Chinese cabinet issued the new rules after an incident in March in which two people were infected by the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus at a lab of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

China will grade its pathogenic microbe labs in four levels. The first and second grades are labs prohibited from conducting experiments on risky pathogenic microbes that can cause severe diseases in human and animals and spread easily.

The third and fourth grades require specific permission from health and veterinary authorities.

Approval will also be required for experiments on risky pathogenic microbes and report results when the research ends.

Earlier this year, the Diarrhea Virus Laboratory under the Institute of Virus Diseases of the centre carried out experiments with the SARS virus without proper qualification and facilities to contain the virus.

An investigation showed lab researchers used an untested method to kill the SARS virus and did not test the result of the process.

This was later confirmed as the source of this years' SARS outbreak.

The 2004 recurrence of SARS caused nine people to fall ill and one death.

The director and deputy director of the centre resigned. The head and deputy head of the centre's Institute of Virus Diseases as well as director of the lab were dismissed in July.

According to the new regulations, the head of the institution that owns a lab and head of the lab will be held accountable for any similar mistakes.

The biosafety regulations are the first and most authoritative in China, said an official with the Ministry of Health on Saturday.

"The ministries of health, agriculture and science and technology all issued relevant documents and rules on this aspect but no standardized one had been issued," he said, "We are working on an plan to implement the regulations."

Gao Qiang, executive vice-minister of health, said early July that strengthening lab biosafety is an important and urgent task for the national health system.

"The March outbreak rang the alarm for the nation's lab safety management," Gao said. "The necessary punishment for some officials is to help consolidate the responsibility awareness for relevant officials and establish a responsibility system for major accidents."

The regulations also ask medical labs to set up special departments or personnel to supervise the facilities.