Laboratories are important components of effective disease surveillance and outbreak response systems. Events such as the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic have highlighted weaknesses in the region’s disease surveillance and laboratory capacity, especially for the rapid diagnosis of high-consequence epidemic-prone diseases and storage of deadly pathogen samples. This has national, regional and international health security implications and is a threat to the already fragile economic development of the region.

As part of international donor global health security initiatives and cooperative threat reduction efforts, sophisticated laboratories have been provided to bolster capacity for diagnosis and storage of high-consequence pathogens in low-resource countries, using the standards and templates applied in high-income countries. 

However, it can be difficult or even impossible to sustain these facilities. A lack of local technical capacity and capability can sometimes result in a high reliance on imported expertise, skills, equipment and parts, and sustainability can therefore be hard to achieve. Often, such laboratories become disused when donor support recedes, foundering without the trained personnel and financial resources to sustain them.

An alternative - gaining increasing support in relevant policymaking circles - is an approach based on a local risk assessment, whereby laboratories are appropriately and optimally tailored to the local risks and to the resources available, both in the short and longer term, without compromising biosafety and biosecurity.

The Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security has been engaged in this issue since 2012. The current phase of the project has three workstreams, which emerged from, and have been refined through, consultations with African stakeholders and with donors and experts. The strands of work, which aim to inform policymaking in the area of biosafety and biosecurity capacity building, include:

  • Prior-assessment tool: The creation of a laboratory ‘prior-assessment tool’ to guide early discussion between partners interested in establishing a new or repurposed laboratory. The tool supports systematic exploration of fundamental questions that should be asked before embarking, to better ensure the sustainability of any ensuing laboratory. 
  • Core specifications: A case study on a newly established laboratory in Lagos State, Nigeria, to test core specifications outlined in the recently revised WHO Laboratory Biosafety Manual against sustainability criteria and examine the initial experience of sustainability with regard to the way the facility was designed and specified.
  • Training hub: Investigating the feasibility of establishing a regional training hub for sustainable laboratories in Africa.

Chatham House’s work on the Sustainable Laboratories Initiative is led by Professor David R. Harper and funded by the Weapons Threat Reduction Program, Global Affairs Canada.

For more information, please contact David R. Harper.