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China Tightens Biosafety Rules

BEIJING--Spurred in part by laboratory mishaps that led to an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), China has enacted its first national laboratory biosafety regulations. The virus, accidentally spread by researchers, killed one person and sickened nine last April.

The new regulations, which went into effect 27 November, are based largely on the Laboratory Biosafety Manual of the World Health Organization (WHO) and define four levels of labs, corresponding to the biosafety levels 1 through 4 of the WHO manual. Also as in the WHO manual, the Chinese regulations specify pathogens, including the viruses that cause SARS and avian influenza, that can be handled only in level- 3 and -4 labs. China's new guidelines go further than WHO's in recommending that lab managers failing to follow the regulations be subject to criminal investigations.

Work on the regulations began last year but was accelerated after sloppy lab practices at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Beijing led to infections of two researchers who passed the disease on to several contacts (ScienceNOW, 27 April), says Song Ruilin, an official with the State Council's Legislative Affairs Office. Previously, lab safety was the responsibility of individual ministries, practices were not standardized, and there was lax enforcement.

Julie Hall, WHO coordinator for communicable disease surveillance and response in Beijing, calls the new regulations "a very positive move in the right direction." She says it is particularly significant that the regulations tackle lab biosafety management, "which was one of the failings" identified in the aftermath of the SARS virus leaks.

Researchers generally applaud the government's attention to boosting lab safety. But one scientist, who did not want to be identified, calls the new regulations "unrealistically strict." Hall says such complaints are not uncommon and may be part of the process of finding a balance between restricting access to dangerous bugs and promoting needed research.

Related site
WHO's biosafety manual