26 September 2003

Minister Says Sorry But Denies Mistake

Only in Singapore, folks! The team of experts from the World Health Organisation came to the conclusion on 24 Sept, after a week of exhaustive investigation, that the Singapore SARS Man contracted the disease directly from the Environmental Health Institute (EHI) in NUS, where he was working.

Among the damning details of the report:

The postgraduate student was studying the West Nile virus in the lab. Somehow, all the samples of the virus were contaminated with the SARS virus. The hell no one noticed it till now.

The postgraduate student, as well as his supervisor, did not wear the protective suit on the last visit to the lab before the student came down with SARS.

The student last worked at the lab 3 days before he fell sick, and NOT the 6 days as the EHI had originally claimed in their efforts to shift the blame away from themselves.

Lab personnel often did not follow safety procedures, and record-keeping was poor.

The WHO panel visited other local biological laboratories and concluded that Singapore does not have a national safety standard for labs.

The EHI lab was originally built and designed for Biological Safety Level 2 research, and was converted to BSL-3 to combat SARS. However the infrastructure and safety procedures have not been modified to ensure the higher safety standards required.

Our SGH laboratories mix BSL-2 and BSL-3 research in the same labs, and "prejudice good safety practices".

The NUS labs are overcrowded and have limited space, and there is no "practical culture of safety".

A while back, a nasty Straits Times reporter wrote an editorial damning Canadian authorities and suggesting a cover-up regarding the "false alarm SARS cases". Immediately after the WHO report on Singapore, this same reporter advised everyone to move on, that no heads should roll at the EHI, that there was no cover-up. Amazing double standards.

And isn't it particularly shocking? For the past 5 years, Singapore's leaders have attempted to brand the country as an Asian hub for the life-sciences, and bio-sciences industries, pouring in millions of dollars in R&D, as well as attracting superstar researchers to work here. And for 5 years, this deplorable lack of standards has continued, without our knowledge! And yes, the acting Minister for Health, Khaw Boon Wan, and the Minister for the Environment, Lim Swee Say, refused to acknowledge that there was a serious mistake, only saying that "this is a learning experience", and no heads should roll for this unfortunate incident.

Riiiiight. This comes from the same ministry that was very swift to fire an international researcher a few months back for violating patients' privacy rights by conducting gene testing without their approval. But when it comes to a system wide failure to adhere to safety standards, to the extent of threatening lives.... "this is a learning experience, and no one should be fired."

http://www.moh.gov.sg/sars/pdf/Report_SARS_Biosafety.pdf is the link to the official report by the panel, just in case anyone complains that such important information is either withheld or secreted in obscure places out of reach from prying citizens.

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