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Wildlife forensic lab for disease surveillance

Published on: Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Penampang: The State Government and United States (US) government-to-government cooperation in wildlife preservation and related fields reached another level Monday with the opening of the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory (WHGFL) in Lok Kawi, here.

The RM1.3million facility, Sabah's first Bio-security 2 (BSL2) lab, in Kg Potuki or a stone's throw away from Lok Kawi Zoo, was set up under a joint initiative between Sabah Wildlife Department, EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) and Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC).

The lab would be in full operation by the end of this month, equipped with all the equipment necessary to store samples and conduct genetic analysis on biological samples for disease surveillance.

It will also screen samples for novel virus detection, genetic research and forensic investigations.

US Ambassador to Malaysia, Joseph Yun, together with State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun witnessed the signing of a MoU between EHA and the department for the USAID-PREDICT Project.

The USAID has also donated a lot of equipment and expertise to the lab.

Saying the US Government is happy to have such a collaboration with the Sabah Government, Yun said he is looking forward to more government-to-government cooperation in various fields.

He said the US Government strongly supports the USAID-PREDICT project and its role in identifying threats to human health.

The important job being done at the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory here strengthens public health work, advances scientific research and protects the economic health of the entire region, he said.

"The US is very happy to collaborate with the Sabah Government and Sabah Wildlife Departmet in wildlife preservation," he told a press conference after the official launch.

Masidi said it is a fruition of the past two years' hard work by his Ministry's officials in the department and experts from EHA and DGFC, as well as the beginning of a new journey in wildlife health management in Sabah.

Meanwhile, Masidi also announced the setting up of a Wildlife Health Unit (WHU) by SWD-EHA which is responsible for leading the physical and diagnostic evaluation of rescued and relocated wildlife.

"Besides that WHU will also conduct sampling trips to trap and sample free-ranging wildlife, specifically targeting bats, rodents and primates. This all-Malaysian team is composed of a veterinarian, a molecular biologist and four wildlife rangers," said Masidi.

Both the launched lab and WHU only further enhances local capacity and further reinforces Sabah's core initiatives in wildlife conservation, he added.

"I thank the US for all the assistance provided to us. Today is another one very good collaborative effort between the State Government and the US Embassy and we would like to keep it that way," he said.

Stating the State Government is also always open to any suggestion or new area of cooperation, Masidi said he personally invited Yun and his family to a visit Danum Valley and other places in Sabah to enable the Ambassador to experience what the State has to offer and at the same time probably give his views on any further improvement.

"We have reached greater levels of cooperation in dealing with issues in the State even in conservation which is now not so much confined to the State or Malaysia but a global issue," he said.

He cited the issue of the Sumatran Rhinoceros, which now is the most endangered species in Sabah, and should it go extinct not only Sabah but the whole world would lose one species of Rhinoceros.

"I think we need to think in a new perspective or new dimension to look at it as a global matter and not only limited to just Sabah and Malaysia," said Masidi.

In his speech earlier, the Minister said we are living in a period of time where we see unprecedented development and growth of human population, which presently have exceeded seven billion people and is expected to reach the 10 billion mark by year 2050.

"This only means a greater need for natural resources such as water, food and living space.

In search of that living space, we are pushing in deeper and closer into the wild domain of the forests, cohabiting and conflicting with the wildlife that dwells within. As we humans and wildlife increasingly interact, so does the threat of us being introduced to new and exotic diseases originally found only in the confines of the deep forest."

He said a very disturbing report from the OIE (World Organisation For Animal Health) stated that around 80 per cent of all new emerging or in some cases re-emerging diseases affecting humans since the beginning of the 21st century have originated from wildlife.

"We here in Sabah have long realised this threat and I had instructed the department and DGFC to look into this and to discuss with experts around the world to address this issue," he said.

Thus in late 2011, the department and EHA initiated discussions on a programme that EHA had been conducting around the world called the USAID - Emerging Pandemic Threat Programme (EPT Programme) and the possibility of initiating it in Sabah.

This programme which was implemented by USAID, targeted in enhancing regional, national and local capacities for surveillance, laboratory diagnosis and field epidermiology in both the animals and human health sectors, ultimately minimising the risk for the emergence and spread of the new disease threats.

He also thanked all the major funders involved like USAID, Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) through its Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund, Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort through its Wildlife Conservation Fund and US Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the primary initiators of this great work: Sabah Wildlife Department, EcoHealth Alliance and Danau Girang Field Centre.

Wildlife Director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu, who was also present, said it is a proud day for the department as it has always been its goal to set up a laboratory to not only look into wildlife health and genetic research but also assist its Wildlife Enforcement Division in analysing the confiscated illegal bush meat to determine species and origin, using genetic tools.

"Capacity building within my department has also been enhanced by the setting up of a new unit, WHU, in collaboration with EHA and DGFC, which is part of the department's Wildlife Rescue Unit," he said.

"While the WRU conduct wildlife rescue and translocation activities, WHU will be responsible for leading the physical and diagnostic evaluation of rescued and relocated wildlife across the state as well as conducting sampling trips to trap and sample free ranging wildlife and assess wildlife in protected and unprotected areas," he added.

DGFC Director Dr Benoit Goossens said it was a great honour to be part of this historic moment after two years of hard work with Dr Sen Nathan from the department and Tom Hughes from EHA.

Thanking the EHA support and USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats (EPT) Programme, he said the lab will allow them to carry out wildlife health works that will in return benefit conservation and land use planning for a better management of Sabah landscape, both agricultural and forest.

EHA President Dr Peter Daszak, meanwhile, said the lab represents a bold step forward in showing the linkage between conservation and health and demonstrating how collaborative partnerships can work so effectively for conservation, and for health.

"It is a success story for Sabah Wildlife Department, for the State and for the country of Malaysia, and will show the world how the new field of "EcoHealth" can benefit wildlife, ecosystems and public health," he said.