After debating for over two years, the Indian government has approved construction of the country's first high-security facility for handling and doing research with highly infectious organisms causing diseases in humans.
"The government has sanctioned Rs.1 billion ($25.4 million) for establishing the Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) facility," Lalji Singh, director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), told IANS. Singh had mooted the proposal in 2005.
He said the facility would be set up in Andhra Pradesh, in the "industrial area" about three kilometres from CCMB, on a five-acre land given by the state government.
The ministry of science and technology has given CCMB -- one of the institutes under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) -- the responsibility for setting up the new lab as a "national facility".
India has a BSL-4 laboratory for handling deadly animal pathogens in Bhopal.
Last month, government experts validated and cleared BSL-3 level labs at five laboratories under the CSIR. Containment facilities exist in India's defence laboratory in Gwalior but details are not available.
Singh said the country at present has no BSL-4 facility for handling highly infectious and dangerous micro organisms that can be transmitted via the aerosol route and cause diseases for which there is no vaccine or therapy. The examples are Ebola, West Nile, and SARS virus. These agents require the most stringent conditions for their containment
Lalji Singh said the Hyderabad facility would not do any classified work for defence. "The main objective of our facility would be to carry out basic research on the biology of lethal and highly infectious micro organisms and develop diagnostics to detect cause of sudden disease outbreaks."
Singh said the immediate priorities are HIV that causes AIDS, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, hepatitis and bird flu. He said the facility would have collaborative programmes with pharmaceutical companies.
The original proposal submitted by CCMB to the government said that "being the first of its kind in India, the BSL-4 facility would be of world class and international standards".
Its design has already been selected on the basis of visits by Indian experts to similar labs in France, Canada, and the US during the last two years. "Under the government rules we have to invite global bids," Singh said, adding that the facility would be ready in about two years - one year for construction and another for validation.
Although the BSL-4 facility will be located in an industrial area its presence, not too far from residential localities, is likely to invite opposition from environmentalists. Singh however assured that the facility would not impact the environment or pose a health risk.
"By definition, the BSL-4 facility has very stringent conditions for containment," he told IANS. "In any case the deadly organisms will be grown in small lab animals for research and not stored in the facility."
Justifying its need, Singh said that Indian scientists have been unable to do advanced research on highly pathogenic organisms due to non availability of BSL-4.
"With the emergence of drug resistant form of TB, Hepatitis and HIV, it is necessary to have a facility where these organisms can be handled," he said.
"There is a need to develop vaccines and for rapid identification of organisms of unknown origin. Fight against infectious diseases will be continuing process especially as strains keep evolving," he said.
Singh said that some 20 countries have initiated the construction of such labs in the past two years and India is already late in the game.