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China is putting biosecurity legislation on the front burner. Photo: Shutterstock

China to fast-track biosecurity law in coronavirus aftermath

  • Epidemic has prompted authorities to speed up legislative process, lawyer says
  • Authorities will need to find a way to coordinate agencies responsible for overseeing the broad spectrum of areas under the new umbrella, researcher says
China plans to fast-track biosecurity legislation and elevate it to a national security issue in the wake of a coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 1,700 and sickened over 70,000. 
Addressing a meeting with top leadership in Beijing on Friday, President Xi Jinping said China needed to accelerate the introduction of a biosecurity law to safeguard national security. He also called for sweeping improvements to China’s health emergency response system.

Zhao Hongsheng, a lawyer with the Shanghai Zhao Hongsheng Law Firm, said the epidemic “has caused catastrophic results and has become a trigger to speed up the process of biosecurity law legislation”.

Zhao said that while China had some laws governing different areas of biosafety and security, such as prevention and control of the infectious diseases, wildlife conservation and emergency response, “an umbrella law on biosecurity will lay the legal foundation for a mechanism to deal with such national crises, mobilise all the necessary agencies and address controversial issues such as restrictions on personal freedom”.

“The US has laws on biosafety and biosecurity and a mechanism to deal with biosecurity threats, and China needs a systematic guarantee like the US,” he said.

Chang Jiwen, a deputy director at the research institute for resources and environment policies at the State Council’s Development Research Centre, said Kunming in Yunnan province would host a United Nations biosecurity conference in October, and the legislation would showcase China’s efforts in the area.

Chang said the new legislation might overlap with some existing legislation, including those covering environmental protection, but it would cover a wider range of areas.

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“For example, it will cover regulations on biotechnology, prevention and control of infectious diseases and animal and plant epidemics … terrorist attacks involving biotech and the use of bioweapons,” he wrote in an article published in the official Study Times on Monday.

A draft of China’s first biosecurity law was submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the nation’s top legislative body, for review in October last year.

Although China has signed international protocols on ensuring biology diversity, biosafety and sharing genetic resources, officials vary greatly in their views whether biosecurity is important, according to Yang Chaofei, a former department head with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

“It only became an urgent issue after the recent scandals of fake flu vaccines and gene-edited babies and the spread of African swine fever,” Yang wrote in the Journal of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics last year.

Yu Wenxuan, professor and director of Institute of Environmental and Resources Law at China University of Political Science and Law, said biosecurity referred to protecting the ecosystem, wildlife, human life and health and social-economic system from harm by pathogenic and harmful organisms, invasive alien organisms and modern biotechnology and its applications.

“Different governmental agencies with different responsibilities are usually involved to implement the law. So I think a coordination mechanism is needed to coordinate these agencies,” Yu said.

The draft submitted to the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislature, focused on protecting the security of China’s biological resources, preventing and prohibiting the use of biological agents or biotechnology that may harm national security, and addressing the threat of biological weapons and bioterrorism attacks to sovereign security.

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Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity research programme at the Kirby Institute, UNSW Medicine in Sydney, said that while the details of the law were not available, it was “interesting to speculate as to the reason for new biosecurity laws in China”.

“It could be around the risk to lab staff around handling large volumes of samples sent for testing. It could also be to enable research and development around new drugs and vaccines. There may also be a need to address concerns about security of laboratories,” Maclntyre said.

The epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak is just 32km (20 miles) from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, housing China’s only P4-level biosafety laboratory, the highest classification for facilities that study the deadliest viruses on Earth.

On Sunday, speculation that the first patient diagnosed with Covid-19 – the official name for the disease caused by the coronavirus – was from the institute was widely shared online, prompting the institute to reject the claim.

Andrew Robinson, professor of biosecurity at the University of Melbourne, said the coronavirus outbreak showed that China, like many other Asian countries, remained vulnerable to zoonoses, diseases that cross from animals to humans.

“However, it is not clear at present whether there is something systematically different about China that makes it uniquely vulnerable to zoonoses or whether other factors such as high population density play a role,” Robinson said.

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“I can’t speak about China's biosecurity legislation. However, Australia and New Zealand both have biosecurity legislation that empowers regulatory intervention to protect human health, the national economy, the environment, and social amenity.

“Such legislation is invaluable in guiding and enabling efficient coordinated action against a range of biosecurity threats. That said, in both countries, biosecurity is viewed as a shared responsibility between the government, industry, and the population. Legislation is only a part of the solution.”

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London said: “It is of course a positive step that the Chinese government feels that it must take such a challenge seriously, but passing a law in a Leninist system does not usually bring about the intended changes.”

“There is nothing in law that would or could have prevented the government or the party at Wuhan to have acted to contain and eradicate Covid-19 when it first became known in early December,” Tsang said.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Outbreak ‘a fresh impetus’ to biosecurity law