American claims that biosafety conditions at the Kenya Medical Research Institute were “lacking” have been strongly refuted by Dr Willy Tonui, a principal researcher and biosafety officer at the Institute.
Andrew Weber, the US assistant defence secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological programmes, told of seeing “orange bags with bio-hazardous waste sort of sitting around” at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) in Nairobi.
The wastes had not been destroyed because Kemri’s incinerator had “limited capacity,” Mr Weber said.
“While we were there,” he continued, “a stray cat went into one of the bags, had lunch and hopped over the wall into one of the largest slums in Africa.”
Mr Weber’s account drew gasps and nervous laughter from his listeners at the University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Biosecurity.
The official also raised concerns regarding waste management capabilities at Kemri, and is quoted to have said that “the wastes had not been destroyed because Kemri’s incinerator had limited capacity.” He added that “terror in that part of the world is not a hypothetical situation.”
Dr Tonui describes these claims as unfounded, shocking, and not based on informed observation.
“In Kemri, we have the best waste management practices in the country,” says Dr Tonui.
“We have two functioning incinerators at this research centre. We regard security of bio-hazardous materials as a serious matter; there are two guards stationed at the incinerators at all times,” he added.
Dr Tonui adds that infectious materials are sterilised before incineration, and that the most dangerous materials in laboratory waste are needles, which are sealed in a sturdy plastic container before being incinerated.
He acknowledges that there may be stray cats in Kemri, owing to its proximity to the Kibera slum. Nonetheless, the biohazard bags are sealed, and there is little chance of an animal getting into the bags.
“Furthermore,” he adds, “biological materials such as blood and tissue are not disposed of directly into the biohazard bags.”
The allegation that bio-hazardous materials could be used be by terrorists is described as “shocking” by Dr Tonui.
“A bioterrorist is an intelligent person, with a working knowledge of infectious agents and their effective doses,” he says.
“Infectious agents do not find their way into our waste without being sterilised. To claim that there is a bioterrorism risk is grossly misleading.”
Dr Tonui says that Kemri is on the frontline in promoting biosafety practices and prudent waste management practices on the continent.
“We have helped the National Environment Management Authority to develop the relevant standards. Many laboratories around the country bring their waste for disposal at Kemri. The major challenge we face toward this end is proper segregation of waste.”
Mr Weber accompanied a senior US senator, Richard Lugar, on the visit earlier this month to laboratories in Uganda and Burundi as well as Kenya.
Reported by Kevin Kelley and Christine Mungai