Engaging Public in Strengthening Biosafety and Biosecuriety

Biosafety and Biosecurity have become very important subjects since the perception of friend and enemy has changed in the world right after 911; this topic has received tremendous public interest as it scrutinize the unexpected inflow of potential dangerous products which may have devastating effects on human, animals, crops and environment.

Biosafety and Biosecurity have become very important subjects since the perception of friend and enemy has changed in the world right after 911; this topic has received tremendous public interest as it scrutinize the unexpected inflow of potential dangerous products which may have devastating effects on human, animals, crops and environment.
In recent decades scientific research has created new and unexpected products, knowledge and technologies that offer first-time opportunities to improve human and animal health and environmental conditions. Some science and technology can be used for destructive purposes as well as for constructive purposes. Scientists have a special responsibility when it comes to problems of dual use and the misuse of science and technology.
With out biosafety no one can sure about the biosecurity of a state. Due to political instability in our region; it has become vital to understand the importance and sensitivity associated with this emerging discipline; therefore Pakistan must set up proper infrastructure and effective mechanisms to detect rapidly any biosafety and biosecurity threats or incident in order to protect the motherland from possible bio-disasters.
Scientific and technological developments in the area of biotechnology, nanotechnology and genetic engineering have increased significantly in the past decade. These developments cut across a wide range of fields including agriculture, medicine, environment and industry. Today there are more than thirty institutes in Pakistan claim have capacity to conduct biotech research and development in different fields.
Research activities carried out in various life-sciences / biotech institutes and laboratories to control infectious diseases in human, animal and crops need to follow the safety guidelines from the development phase till testing and evaluation procedure in order to enhance biosafety and biosecurity; otherwise there could be negative consequences on our health, environment and economy – moreover may even create challenges for our strategic assets and national security. In this scenario Pakistan must establish watchdog wings with collaboration of various bodies like Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Ministry of Health, Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Commerce, Higher Education Commission to insure the monitoring and implementation of biosafety and biosecurity system in all manner.
In many languages it is difficult to distinct between term “biosafety” and “biosecurity”; which often confuse those who are dealing with these issues. Usually Biosafety refers to work safety in order to restraint and control technologies and practices that are implemented to prevent unintentional exposure to pathogens and toxins or their accidental release that can be harmful to people, animals, and plants. For this research laboratories must be designed based on the containment needs of the work being performed from basic Biosafety level -1 to maximum containment level – 4. As concern has grown about the possibility of infectious diseases spreading across national boundaries – disease control and surveillance have become a prominent part of biosafety. Biosafety ensured through education and training in good and safe laboratory practices. On the other hand Biosecurity refers to institutional and personal security measures designed to prevent the loss, theft, misuse, accidental release of pathogens or toxins.
In many countries government bodies have issued laboratory manuals and guidelines for use by microbiologists and molecular biologists, clinical healthcare personnel and environmental scientists, and for bio-waste disposal specialists and veterinarians. Guidelines and manuals deal with a wide range of subjects that range from biosafety in research and teaching laboratories to working with recombinant DNA molecules as well as to the primary containment of biohazardous agents and the safe transport of infectious substances, diagnostic specimens and toxic biowastes.
Earlier this year a US team reports how it built the entire DNA code of a common bacterium in the laboratory using blocks of genetic material – can be used to clean fuels and take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Now critics have been calling for a debate on the risks, biosafety and biosecurity of creating synthetic life in a test tube; similarly in 2002 synthetic virus a new version of polio was created at lab. Understanding how you construct organisms artificially is an important first step; but scientists still need to understand what effect altering the DNA sequence of an organism such as bacteria will have upon their behavior and on our ecosystem.
However there are number of challenges on the path of Biosafety and Biosecurity at national and international level for instance lack of education and public awareness to potential biohazard threats, limited Government resources, number of easily accessible agents, illegal importations, lack of real time diagnostics, poor laboratory infrastructure and lack of vaccination programs; above all there is no uniform global standards for laboratory security on which individual state can base national legislation and regulations. This lack of harmonization has given rise to gaps and vulnerabilities that must be addressed as part of a coordinated global strategy to prevent any bioterrorism threat.
Pakistan biosecurity is under increasing pressure from the rapid expansion of world trade and as the worldwide movement of people and goods becomes quicker and easier. All this creates challenges for biosecurity, including increased risks from exotic pests and new and re-emerging diseases, and raises concerns about national security. Therefore we must strengthen our biosafety and biosecuriety system to ensures confidence building and harmonization with the rest of world.
International consumers are demanding production systems that produce safe food while respecting the environment and animal welfare. Pakistan just has started work on a three-year project to introduce the system of system of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) that will enable the country to upgrade its fruit and vegetable farming system in line with international standards. Faced with the threat of losing more international markets. Pakistan has been losing international markets of its agricultural produce – vegetables and fruits, particularly citrus due to its inability to comply with International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) standards and Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) regulations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
However Pakistan need to implement Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) methods to ensures food safety, pharmaceutical safety, HACCP is used in the food industry to identify potential food safety hazards to reduce or eliminate the risk of the hazards being realized. Today to product related standards and technical regulations, system standards are rapidly gaining currency as more and more international buyers ask for the proof that internationally recognized, certified, operational systems and procedures are in place for the control of food contamination. Food Safety Management System (HACCP), quality management (ISO-9000), Environmental Management Standard (ISO-14000), Product Traceability, Social Accountability (SA-8000), Occupational Health and Safety so on.
It is worth mentioning that public must not get confuse with ISO 9000 or ISO 9001 standards with biosafety as ISO standards only ensures for quality management systems; set of procedures that cover all key processes in the business and how properly it is documented not the safety of the product. On the other hand principles of GAPs and HACCP basically lead us to words biosecurity system.
In February 2008; Japan pledged to step up screening of food imports from China as hundreds of Japanese complaining of illness. Ten people were diagnosed with pesticide poisoning after eating the frozen meat – major food makers recall food products manufactured at the same factory in China. In August 2007; China has come under strong international pressure after millions of toys exported to the United States and Europe proved to have dangerous defects; millions of toys were recalled by many big businesses because of concern over toxic lead paints used in it. In 2004; Pakistan refused to receive three Australian wheat shipments; which were believed containing harmful fungus.
According to National Academy of Sciences USA; few categories of Science & Technology advances that have potential to contribute to the future development of biological hazard products like acquisition of novel biological or molecular diversity, Understanding and manipulating biological systems, Production, delivery, and packaging
Although United States is just one of many countries that conduct research on infectious disease agents and maintain collections of dangerous pathogens but our neighboring countries also have either offensive or defensive biological warfare program. Today, many biological tech facilities located in the independent states of Russia have been converted to civilian uses. Since political instability in Afghanistan and economical uncertainty in the whole region there is big concern that certain individual or groups may have access to microbial technology and collect pathogens highly dangerous for human, animal and crops – could potentially diverted to destabilized the economy of a country.
Moreover trade in microbial cultures is poorly regulated both within and among developing countries therefore national biosecurity regulations must be strengthened to prevent terrorists from stealing deadly pathogens from poorly protected facilities in those countries where laws and enforcement are lax. So improved security for collections of dangerous pathogens in the region is urgently needed many laboratories lack the necessary financial and technical resources to implement these measures for that reason foreign technical and financial assistance would be required. By helping to ensure that dangerous pathogens are used only for peaceful purposes global biosecurity standards would reinforce the prohibition on the state level development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons enshrined in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC); this treaty has been ratified by Pakistan and many other developing countries.
More recently there has been a trend towards more sustainable measures such as safe trade rules for biosafety, an example of which is the Biosafety Protocol; although Pakistan is part to Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) but it has not yet ratified Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
In the early 1980s, the government launched a program under which expatriates visited different research laboratories and participated in short-term courses and training workshops. In 1981 the Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad, organised a course on recombinant DNA methodology and genetic engineering which marked the beginning of initiatives in biotechnology in the country.
In Pakistan most biotech research institutes declared that they have the capacity to conduct biotech research and development in different disciplines, however only a few have adequate infrastructure and made noteworthy achievements. The major centres in the country are Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC); National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE), Faisalabad; National Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB), University of the Punjab, Lahore; Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad; The Centre for Molecular Genetics (CMG), University of Karachi; Biomedical and Genetic Engineering Division, Dr A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories, Islamabad; Centre of Agriculture, Biochemistry and Biotechnology (CABB), University of Agriculture, Faisalabad; Agriculture Biotechnology Institute, National Agriculture Research Centre (NARC), Islamabad; University of Arid Agriculture, Rawalpindi; Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Peshawar; Institute of Biochemistry, University of Balochistan, Quetta; Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, University of Sindh, Jamshoro; and Dr. Punjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research University of Karachi (HEJ).
The historical record suggests that bioterrorists are generally opportunistic and seek out the most accessible source of pathogens. Although some countries developed research programs in biological weapons as early as the 1930s; Japan had an offensive biological warfare program and performed human experiments similarly many believed Germany was experimenting with biological agents for purposes of war at the same time. The U.S. started offensive biological plan in 1943. It weaponized seven biological agents such as anthrax that could kill humans. In 1980, Sri Lankan Tamil secessionist group threatened to infect humans and crops with deadly pathogens. In October 2001 twenty-two people developed symptoms and five died from the intentional distribution of letters laced with anthrax in USA. There have been some accident in which food borne illness have been reported in many countries which badly effected business in the region in1996 in USA Escherichia coli O157:H7 was reported in California lettuce similarly in 2003 Hepatitis A reported in Mexican green onions.


In our country agricultural biosafety and biosecurity covering crops, trees and farm and aquatic animals is of even greater importance since it relates to the livelihood security of nearly seventy percent of the population and the food, health, and trade security of the nation. The world is truly becoming a global village with reference to communication and transport. Disease causing organisms can spread fast through airplanes and farm trade.

Disruption of the agricultural sector can cause profound dislocation of societies. Direct losses of plants or animals can result in shortage of food supply, increase in food prices, and unemployment. All this, if severe, can bring about serious destabilizing effects on social and political structures. Many developing countries are potentially quite vulnerable to such destabilization, particularly if they depend heavily on a single food crop or animal. Nevertheless, the potential for immense economic damage is high in a well-planned attack.

In June 2002, US President Bush signed into law “The Bioterrorism Act of 2002”. This Act is to be administered by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has the primary responsibility for implementing the provisions of the Act within the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Act and regulations there under are designed to improve the ability of the United States to prevent, prepare for, and respond to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies. The Act will impact not only on the food industry in the United States itself, but also those countries; which ship food, feed, etc. into or through the United States. In 2004 the federal “BioShield law provides $5.6 billion over 10 years to procure vaccines, therapies and other products critical to protecting against bioterrorism.

At present President Bush’s has increases food safety and security funding $264 million FY 2009 – USDA budget includes increased funding for food safety and security programs in order to improve the safety and security of America’s food supply and agriculture; The budget increases funding for high priority for food and agriculture defense and emerging diseases in crops and livestock.

It is worthy the know that according to recent research Global warming may trigger infectious diseases to spread more easily via pests like mosquitoes, cockroaches or ticks that are sensitive to temperature changes; the rise in temperatures in some areas like Europe, Canada or places at high altitude may bring diseases like malaria, dengue, where it has never been seen as long as anyone can remember. Similarly it is believed that higher temperatures would give rise to new pests and diseases of crops and livestock.

Pakistan is the transitory home for many migratory birds especially during winter season; our country is also becoming a national village with reference to communication, transportation, and trade. Therefore, home quarantine assumes as much importance as international quarantine. Cross-border movement of farm goods and animals with neighboring countries is another area of biosecurity significance.

Agriculture is the single largest sector and a dominant driving force for growth and development of the national economy of Pakistan; the economy very heavily depends on the production of major crops like cotton, wheat, rice and sugarcane. It accounts for 24 percent of the GDP and employs 46 percent of the total work force. Agriculture contributes to growth as a supplier of raw materials to industry as well as a market for industrial products and also contributes substantially to Pakistan’s exports earnings. Almost 70 percent of country’s population are living in rural areas and are directly or indirectly linked with agriculture for their livelihood. Any Improvement in agriculture will not only helps country’s economic growth to rise at a faster rate but will also benefit a large segment of the country’s population.

Cotton is the major cash crop of Pakistan consider as a backbone of our economy; it accounts for 8.2 percent of the value added in agriculture and about 3.2 percent to GDP; which earns nearly 60% of the foreign exchange; adds over $3.1 billion to the national economy.

This season cotton production has declined by about 15 percent which is around 10.6 millions bales as compared to 13 million bales in 2007; a decline of over two million bales. Three main reasons are the cotton leaf curl virus (CLCV), pesticide-resistant mealy bugs and non approved Bt cotton varieties over 40 percent of cotton growing area adversely affected boll size, fiber quality and weight, however in some area harsh weather conditions also added problems for cotton growing farmers. It is believed that cotton leaf curl virus – Burewala strain, which resulted in huge losses to the cotton crop in the country, was due to the introduction of foreign non approved cotton varieties that were not suitable to our soil and climatic condition similarly Pakistan never had “Banana Bunchy virus” but after import of untested banana variety from Australia; Banana crop in Sindh never come out of its infestation and damages. Presently there are some trees having unknown pathogenic problems Mango Sudden Death Syndrome which need urgent attention by the authorities to evaluate its causes. Agriculture is our strategic asset, and must be protected from those who want to gamble on it just to make some money or ruined our economy.

Since Livestock (Cattle, sheep, poultry etc) for us is as important as crops – need to be protected from diseases and plagues because it contributes 49 per cent to the value added in the agriculture sector. Because of the huge financial stakes in the agricultural sector, and drug industry involves, organized crime may take an interest in bio-criminal activities with agricultural targets. 1950’s in Kenya, Mau Mau used plant toxins to kill livestock. Some many be interested to destabilize important agriculture market sector to create shortage of food, cause trade barriers or capture market share. The European Union (EU) imposed restriction on the import of UK beef due to the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE); as a result UK bear loses in million and it took years to convince EU to left ban on the import of its beef. Similarly the threat to industry profits from diseases like foot-and-mouth disease and citrus canker which increasing globalization makes harder to control if there would not be any biosecurity in place. The present infrastructure and institutional framework in the area of agricultural biosecurity, including the World Trade Organization specifications of sanitary and phytosanitary measures but unfortunately so far Pakistan is too slow in its strengthen and implementation. The existing infrastructure for sanitary and phytosanitary measures will have to be reviewed and major gaps filled. While in developed countries, any disaster arising from invasive alien species like the H5N1 strain of the avian flu may be more of a human health problem.

In 2006 Poultry farming, an important sub- sector of livestock, has suffered a loss of over Rs3 billion in one month due to reduction in prices as well as low consumption of poultry meat due to fear of bird flu (H5N1 strain) in the country. So far eight cases of bird flu among people confirmed in Pakistan by the WHO; since 2003, 341 recorded cases among people in 14 nations; 210 were fatal Scientists fear possible pandemic if virus mutates into more transmissable form human to human.

In the last few year rapid spread of Dengue Fever – a viral infections spread by mosquitoes has caused concern among people in Pakistan as this disease was never heard before 1990’s. In Pakistan, at least 27 deaths have been reported and the death rate from Dengue is significantly more than elsewhere. As many as 1900 cases have been confirmed and far more are expected. Travel services from PIA and Pakistan Railways are taking measures to contain the spread of the disease but looks beyond their capacity to sure biosecurity due to lack of reinforcement system.

Number of times Pakistani government has given assurance to world that its nuclear program is in the safe hand; in future if we failed to develop biosafety regulation and its implementation system; we may end-up with allegations of bridging biosecurity; it is notable that in March 2003, when Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured, claimed a key operational planner for Al Qaeda –authorities revealed that the organization had recruited a Pakistani microbiologist, acquired materials to manufacture botulinum toxin (neurotoxin protein), and developed a workable plan for anthrax production. The government of Pakistan should set their house in order related to biosafety and biosecurity at the earliest in order to avoid apologetic position at any international forum.

Every country that transfers pathogens and toxins across national borders should establish rules for the safe and secure shipping of dangerous goods and import-export controls, and create a national body to enforce biosafety regulations.

World of science and technology; research in modern biotechnology, nanotechnology and genetic engineering are amazing piece of art however the real concern is that it’s another example of knowledge and skill delving into matters that have potentially dangerous consequences for mankind if issues of biosafety and biosecurity would be ignored. There is desperate need to engage public from all backgrounds in order to minimize possible biohazard dangerous to human health, agriculture and environment.


Courtesy: Ijaz Ahmad Rao 

Muhammad Ramzan Rafique
Muhammad Ramzan Rafique

I am from a small town Chichawatni, Sahiwal, Punjab , Pakistan, studied from University of Agriculture Faisalabad, on my mission to explore world I am in Denmark these days..

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