Malaysia needs new biosecurity law

Dr Noor Dzuhaidah Osman

To date, there are countless movement control (MCO) order flouters facing court hearings, imprisonment and compounds. Are the MCO rules and regulations not strict enough for these flouters?

The MCO related laws are the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and the Police Act 1967.

A fine of RM1000 is imposed for breaching the Act and related regulations. To reduce congestion in prison and avoid the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, the Bar Council Malaysia does not advise the imprisonment of the offenders.  

There were renowned retired judges who suggested that the fine for MCO offences be increased. However, I think it is time for the laws in Malaysia, especially those relating to science and technology, like the Biosafety Act 2007, to be improved.  

Some protocols or standard operating procedures for carrying out risk assessment and management, for instance in importing and handling of a living modified organism (LMO) should be commended.

I have perused the Australia biosecurity website which claims the Australian Biosecurity Act 2015 is among the best as it contains the emergency response plan together with the effective international relationship with other countries. In short, Australian biosecurity law is for the protection of human life, plants and animals on the Australian continent.

As for Malaysia, the biosecurity law specifically deals with animals only to prevent the spread of infectious diseases among animals. This was due to the incident of the Japanese Encephalitis (JE) virus among pigs at Bukit Pelanduk back in 1998-1999.

The biosafety law at the international level called the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is the main protocol that covers the environmental biosafety aspects. The protocol at the lab is covered by the lab biosafety protocol, which usually follows the international lab standard.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety governs the transboundary movement of the living modified organism (LMO) for the benefits of human health and the environment.

The Cartagena Protocol indirectly protects human health from risks of LMO exposure. From the Cartagena Protocol, there is no clear detail on human health aspects and it is perhaps up to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to work on the details later.

Biosecurity at the international level is more towards the protection of humans from biological weapons and the effects therefrom.  Singapore has the Biological Agents and Toxins Act (Bata) 2005 that controls LMO and hazardous material. Singapore has its biosafety and biosecurity Act because of the SARS outbreak in its labs in 2003.

When I looked at the WHO Covid-19 data in Australia, I had a surprise.  Australia, the smallest continent in the world with 25 million people, had only 28,000 Covid-19 cases with only 909 deaths and six new cases.

The Australian Biosecurity Act 2005 covers plants, animals and human health. As part of the biosecurity risk management, every province in Australia has its own rule, also supervised by the protocol, to manage the risks from various dangerous viruses to humans.

This is inclusive of biological threats to humans, industries and the environment that incorporate pandemic and future bioterrorism activities as well.

Hence, it is about time for Malaysia to rectify its laws in view of the rapid changes and developments in science and technology such as biotechnology with possibilities of bioterrorism either through biochemical substances or viruses.

Current laws seem to be ad hoc and temporary measures tied to the executive powers; they overlook many issues and appear to be more reactive rather than proactive.

Malaysia needs a new biosecurity law to handle the Covid-19 pandemic in order to be at par with other developed countries in the future. More comprehensive risk assessment and management will restore the confidence of other countries in Malaysia in handling the virus.

Dr Noor Dzuhaidah Osman is senior lecturer, Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.