Top GMO labs filthy and pose serious health risks

Top laboratories highly contaminated with disease causing bacteria and harmful fungus [Courtesy]
Three top laboratories handling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Kenya are highly contaminated with disease-causing germs.

A study published early this month (March 7) found the three laboratories highly contaminated with bacteria and harmful fungus.

The study also reports laboratory workers are not observing basic safety measures, hence putting themselves and others in danger.

In October, the Biosafety Appeals Board also made similar claims against the same labs, saying workers had become too lax in observing safety measures.

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Escaping into environment

This, laboratory experts say, raises doubt whether GMO materials held in these facilities are secured well enough to prevent them from escaping into the environment.

The new study was led by Dennis Nyachae of the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at Kenyatta University (KU).

The team investigated Biosafety Level II labs handling GMOs at KU, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro). “The level of contamination within the facilities, caused by scientists and other lab workers is extremely worrying,” Nyachae told Saturday Standard.

“Presence of a large number of selected human disease-causing germs in this study shows that laboratory staff do not follow laid down safety rules,” concluded the study.

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Some of the confirmed organisms, the study shows can cause pneumonia, diarrhoea and respiratory diseases. But also important, the authors say some of the organisms can irreparably contaminate crucial specimen at the facilities.

Nyachae had earlier presented the finding to the National Biosafety Agency (NBA), the body responsible for the security of GMO technology in Kenya.

Prof Theophilus Mutui of NBA said while the identified organisms are not part of those used in crop modifications they could be reduced if standard operating procedures are strictly observed.

The authors say they found high levels of germs on the laboratories' floors and walls, dust coats and gloves, door knobs and even personal items such as handbags, notebooks and mobile phones.

The source of contamination, Nyachae said included, water systems, poor specimen collection techniques, improper cleaning procedures and entry into labs with contaminated items such as mobile phones, bags, pens, notebooks and shoes.

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Most basic laboratory procedures, but crucial in labs such as proper disinfection, washing hands and wearing clean lab coats were not being observed.

“Some of workers were found working without dust coats or lab canvas while handling mobile phones in incubation rooms,” Nyachae said.

ILRI however has reacted robustly to the report, denying any kind of safety laxity in their research labs. “Safety is ILRI’s number one, two and three priority — in all of our laboratories as well as all other work,” Susan MacMillan, head of Communications, Awareness and Advocacy said.

In an email response, MacMillan said ILRI follows clear international and Kenyan-agreed lab practices, conducts regular training in these practices and monitors their strict adherence.

MacMillan cast aspersions on the study, its authors and the publishing Journal of Advances in Biology and Biotechnology. ILRI, she said, had no record of the three KU researchers ever having visited their labs to conduct the study.

A strong defense of the labs also came from Dr Richard Oduor, a senior lecturer at the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at KU as well as the Secretary General of the Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium.

“All personnel working in these labs undergo rigorous and certified training on safety; they learn how to sterilise their work stations and use protective gear such as lab coats and gloves,” Dr Odour said.

The issue of GMO laboratory contamination was the subject of debate at the 6th Annual Biosafety Conference hosted by NBA in October. Presenting for the Biosafety Appeals Board, Prof Paul Okemo said they had also made similar findings.

Poor observance

The board reported poor observance of safety procedures by staff in some of the labs and use of ineffective sterilising agents. “Some of the actors have become too familiar with procedures and were not strict enough,” the professor said.

Okemo said despite occupational safety and health laws being in place to protect Kenyans against GMO accidents, the board lacks capacity to supervise or enforce the same. “We are hampered by inadequate resources in terms of personnel, equipment and finances,” he said in his presentation titled: Can we Bell the Cat?

These revelations come at a time Kalro is preparing for open experimentation on GMO cotton and maize in several parts of Kenya.

The Ministry of Health has been opposed to commercialisation of GMOs in Kenya, arguing the country lacks capacity to guarantee their safety and secure handling.

In an ongoing World Health Organisation Member States peer evaluation, Kenya has scored poorly in her capacity to prevent, detect and respond to GMO-related public health emergencies. www.rocketscience.co.ke 

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