Regional coordination and transparent communication are necessary biosafety procedures to successfully combat the COVID-19 pandemic, biosafety expert Sacha Wallace-Sankarsingh said at an Oct. 14 event.
The event, titled “Biosafety and Biosecurity: A Foundation for Regional Health Security in the Caribbean,” featured a discussion with Wallace-Sankarsingh, a biorisk manager at the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), around biosafety and biosecurity practices to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Lisa Indar, director of CARPHA’s Surveillance, Disease Prevention and Control Division delivered opening remarks. The event was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, the Global Health Initiative and the Elizabeth R. Griffin Program in honor of October being National Biosafety Month.
CARPHA is the sole integrated regional public health agency in the Caribbean, responsible for preventing disease and promoting health in the Caribbean through leadership, innovation and partnerships. Established in 2011 by Caribbean Community Member States, the organization currently serves 26 countries and is leading the region’s health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, CARPHA has hosted national training sessions on biosafety and virtual sessions for laboratory professionals, according to Wallace-Sankarsingh. The organization has also trained more than 1,500 law enforcement officers from 17 member states in the proper use of personal protective equipment.
“It was interesting for me to see the way we used to do our training sessions,” Wallace-Sankarsingh said at the event. “With the proper use of respirators, for instance, using personal protective equipment — these are things that were more or less in the lab and now it is mainstream as part of COVID-19 response across sectors.”
CARPHA works with various nations and organizations on projects to increase and improve resources. CARPHA announced a donation from the Japan-CARICOM Friendship and Cooperation Fund in order to build up COVID-19 testing capacity earlier this month and launched a collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada to build infrastructure in response to the pandemic in April.
Organizations like CARPHA aid in bridging capacity gaps developing countries face because of global inequality, according to Wallace-Sankarsingh.
“You cannot speak about biosecurity and biosafety without addressing issues of equality, preparedness for health emergencies and the use of networks,” Wallace-Sankarsingh said. “It is because of networks that we are able to leverage resources and have that resilience among countries operating in highly strained environments.”
Training programs such as CARPHA’s create a ripple effect of knowledge and cultural priority; in 2018, CARPHA trained 17 experts in Belize, who took the information and spread it to nearly 60 people in their laboratories, according to Wallace-Sankarsingh.
“So that makes me excited that the knowledge sharing continues, that our participants don’t just keep it to themselves and of course that means that the culture of biosafety and biosecurity continues to grow,” Wallace-Sankarsingh said.
Policy makers need to prioritize biosafety and biosecurity in order to adequately address modern public health issues, according to Wallace-Sankarsingh.
“We need leadership. We need this to remain a priority with decision-makers,” Wallace-Sankarsingh said. “For me, the time is now because of the pandemic, and how all we were doing in the background with labs and biosecurity and biosafety has come to the forefront to show the importance of how quickly we have had to come up to speed with how to respond to these public health emergencies.”
Collaboration is the key to ensuring countries have the tools they need to tackle public health crises, according to Wallace-Sankarsingh.
“As a whole, there is a reliance on solidarity,” Wallace-Sankarsingh said. “Really in the Caribbean, we do embrace that term. No man is an island. In terms of promoting and advocating for health security at the regional level, if we don’t have the ability to leverage our resources, we would be in a much worse position during the pandemic.”
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