Scientific independence will not be compromised in the newly designated state laboratory at the University of Hong Kong, says top microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung. The Ministry of Science and Technology recently approved the university's application to establish the HKU State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the first facility of its kind outside the mainland and the only one focusing on new infectious diseases. The $8 million laboratory will be operational in six months and will include a new animal laboratory designated for biosafety level three - the third riskiest ranking in a four-step hazard scale. Professor Yuen, who heads the microbiology department, said: 'We have always been scientifically independent because this is one country, two systems. So there is no question about our independence at all.' He said Hong Kong's location was an important factor in the mainland designation. 'Many of the important pathogens were first identified in Hong Kong - the bacteria for plague in 1894, the human case of H5N1 flu in 1997. Hong Kong and southern China have the highest population density of both humans and animals, their close proximity to each other, our unique eating culture - all these make us a very important sentinel for emerging infections.' He added that the designation would make it easier for the laboratory to raise funds for research. Guan Yi, an assistant professor in microbiology, said the mainland had recognised the university's groundbreaking work on bird flu and Sars. It was also their work and the recommendation to cull all civet cats in Guangdong's wet markets that effectively stopped the second outbreak of Sars there earlier this year, he added. The university's vice-chancellor, Tsui Lap-chee, said the laboratory would give Hong Kong 'strategic advantages' in controlling emerging diseases. Leung Pak-yin, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, meanwhile, said the rapid identification of a flu pandemic strain and the wide use of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu would be the cornerstone of the city's flu pandemic plan. 'We need to buy time to develop an effective vaccine,' Dr Leung said. After a pandemic virus was detected, it took time to produce a vaccine. Before then, the drug would be used to minimise deaths and severity of the flu, he said.