Pakistan launches national biosafety body

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[ISLAMABAD] Pakistan has established a national-level body to monitor biosafety measures in the areas of biotechnology and trans-border infectious diseases.

The Pakistan Biological Safety Association (PBSA) was launched by the Higher Education Commission’s National Core Group in Life Sciences, at a stakeholder meeting earlier last month (6 August) in Islamabad.

The PBSA includes officials from the country’s research and development establishments and will act as a watchdog to monitor observance of biosafety standard in laboratory work on microbes, pathogens and transgenic materials. It will also conduct awareness campaigns on biosafety issues.

The PBSA will report any violations to the Biosafety Directorate of the Ministry of Environment. The ministry established a set of biosafety guidelines in 2005.

The PBSA’s first aim is to conduct a vaccine awareness campaign among farmers on avian influenza as Pakistan has seen cases of H7 and H9 strains of bird flu in poultry. It also wants to introduce biosafety as part of the national curriculum at university level.

"We will work towards safety of the scientists, users and environment regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through strict observance of the biosafety rules and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment," Anwar Nasim, patron of the association and chairman of the National Commission on Biotechnology told SciDev.Net.

While illegally imported GM cotton seeds are reportedly being used by farmers in Punjab and Sindh provinces, Bt Cotton and sugar cane have been developed locally and approved for commercial use. GM rice, potato and tomato are pending approval from the National BioSafety Committee.

"A national body including all stakeholders was needed for a participatory approach of biosafety rules monitoring. We hope PBSA will actively interact with laboratories on biological risk assessment and biohazard prevention," Asif Shuja Khan, director-general of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency told SciDev.Net.

Praising the creation of the PBSA, project director at the National Institute for Genomics and Advanced Biotechnology, Yousaf Zafar, stressed the need to establish a centre to coordinate information to be incorporated into the international Biosafety Clearing House.

The Biosafety Clearing House is a mechanism where parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety — as Pakistan is — share information on genetically modified organisms.