By Gatonye Gathura
Three of top laboratories handling Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Kenya are highly contaminated with disease causing germs.
A study published on 7th March found the three laboratories highly contaminated with disease causing bacteria and harmful fungus.
The study also reports laboratory workers are not observing basic safety measures hence putting themselves and others in danger.
Such measures, the study says include workers not washing their hands, not wearing dust coats or gloves and entering laboratories with contaminated personal items such as mobile phones.
In October the Biosafety Appeals Board also made similar claims against the same labs saying workers had become too lax in observing safety measures.
This, laboratory experts say raises doubts 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 Mose of the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology of Kenyatta University.
The team investigated Biosafety Level II labs handling GMOs at Kenyatta University, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO).
“The level of contamination within the facilities, caused by scientists and other lab workers is extremely worrying,” says Nyachae.
“Presence of large number of selected human disease causing germs in this study shows that the laboratory staffs do not follow laid down safety rules,” concluded the study.
Some of the confirmed organisms, the study shows can cause pneumonia, diarrhea 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, the body responsible for the security of GMO technology.
Prof Theophilus Mutui of NBA said the identified germs could be reduced if Standard Operating Procedures in the labs were strictly observed. However he clarified that these organism are not the same as those used in genetic modification research.
The authors says they found high levels of germs in all the laboratories, on floors, laboratory walls, dust costs and gloves, door knobs and even personal items such as handbags, note books and mobile phones.
The source of contamination, Nyachae said included: water systems, poor specimen collection techniques, improper cleaning procedures, and entry to labs with contaminated items such as mobile phones, bags, pens, notebooks and shoes.
Some of the most basic laboratory procedures, but crucial in sub labs such as proper disinfection, washing hands and wearing clean lab coats were not being observed.
“Some of workers were found working without dustcoats or lab canvas while handling mobile phones in incubation rooms,” said Nyachae.
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 priorities—in all of our laboratories as well as all other work,” Susan MacMillan head of Communications, Awareness and Advocacy told the Standard.
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.
Such practices requires strict avoidance of sample contamination and an assurance that research materials do not harm lab workers or escape from the laboratories to the internal or external environments.
MacMillan cast aspersions on the study, its authors and the publishing Journal of Advances in Biology & Biotechnology. ILRI she said had no record of the three KU researchers ever having visited their labs to do the study
A similarly strong defense of the labs also came from Dr Richard Okoth Oduor, a senior lecturer at the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at Kenyatta University as well as the Secretary General of the Kenya Universities Biotechnology Consortium.
“All personnel working in these labs undergo a rigorous and certified training on safety and how to sterilize their work stations and use of protective gear such as lab coats and gloves,” said Odour.
The issue of GMO laboratory contamination was the subject of debate in October at the 6th Annual Biosafety Conference hosted by NBA.
Presenting for the Biosafety Appeals Board, on which he is a member Prof Paul Okemo said they had investigated the three labs (Kenyatta University, ILRI and KALRO) and found them highly contaminated with germs.
The board reported poor observance of safety procedures by staff in some of the labs and use of ineffective sterilizing agents. “Some of the actors have become too familiar with procedures and were not strict enough,” said Okemo also a co-author of the new study.
Okemo said despite Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) laws being in place to protect Kenyans against any GMO accidents the board lacks the capacity to supervise or enforce the same.
“We are hampered by inadequate resources in terms of personnel, equipment and finances,” said Okemo in his presentation titled: ‘Can we Bell the Cat?’
These revelations come at a time KARLO is preparing for open experimentation on GMO cotton and maize in several parts of the country.
The Ministry of Health has remained opposed to the commercialization of GMOs in Kenya arguing the country lacked 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.
Some biotechnology milestone in Kenya
2000 and 2003 Kenya sings and then ratifies the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
2006 National Policy on Biotechnology Development approved
2009 Biosafety Act enacted
2010 National Biosafety Authority (NBA) launched
2011 NBA publishes four sets of crucial biosafety regulations
2012 Government bans importation of GM foods
2014 Kenya University Biotechnology Consortium (KUBICO) is formed