HKU expansion brings ‘biosafety hazard’ concern over medical lab

School says new facilities are needed, but local politician voices environmental concerns

August 28, 2021
Source: HKU Med
Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine

A planned development at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) will add new facilities for innotech research, residences and sport – but a proposed lab complex is generating concern locally about supposed potential “biosafety hazards”.

The institution’s medical school is set to grow, partly in response to greater demand for young doctors and nurses in the city.

However, a proposal to build more medical laboratories has come under scrutiny from a local elected official who has highlighted potential environmental and health concerns.

Paul Zimmerman, a district councillor in Pok Fu Lam, the neighbourhood where HKU is located, told Times Higher Education that “generally, we have a good working relationship with HKU Estates Office and [with them] adjusting their plans to community input. This project is an outlier.” About 800 residents have signed a petition urging the university to consider alternative sites.

Mr Zimmerman, an environmentalist and head of an urban planning NGO, sent an appeal to the Hong Kong Town Planning Board this month about what he described as “a laboratory complex on giant legs floating on a green belt site near Queen Mary”, which is HKU’s main teaching hospital.

“Residents are deeply concerned over biosafety hazards,” he says in his submission, which requests “an assessment of the risks of leakage via aerosols, drainage, sewerage, transport, and people movement, into the environment; and the risks of exposure for staff, students, patients, commuters and local residents”.

“While proud of HKU’s contribution to the fights against SARS and Covid, a rethink of the location is required,” he said.

Ying-Shing Chan, associate dean (development and infrastructure) at HKU’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, told THE that the site had been chosen “after due consideration, taking a balance between meeting the needs for additional teaching and research facilities, and minimising impacts to the environment”.

“HKU Med takes laboratory and biosafety as its first and foremost priority,” Professor Chan said. “We maintain the highest international standards of safety and environmental protection, with an established track record of successfully operating high-level microbiological containment laboratories without significant incident since the time of SARS-1 (2003).

“HKU Med will continue to adopt the most stringent measures to ensure the safety of our staff, students and neighbours,” he said, adding that the institution’s facilities were internationally accredited and audited by overseas authorities.

The city’s two medical schools have been instrumental in the fight against Covid, including in running vaccination clinics and in public outreach. HKU Med was one of the first to hold a press conference warning of the novel coronavirus in January 2020.

The effort has kept Hong Kong at nearly “zero Covid”, with just over 200 related deaths.

Professor Chan said expanded facilities were needed if Hong Kong was to continue its good track record.

“Without such state-of-the-art research facilities, Hong Kong could not have dealt with SARS, avian flu and swine flu successfully in the past two decades,” he said. “Expanding and upgrading our facilities will not only provide sturdy support to our ongoing fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, but also enable us to be better prepared for any public health crisis in the future.”

HKU is the only major university located on Hong Kong Island, the urban centre of one of the world’s most densely populated cities. The other Hong Kong institutions with significant laboratory needs are in the relatively less crowded New Territories.

Mr Zimmerman’s submission suggests building the laboratories in the Lok Ma Chau Loop, an area near mainland China and part of the government’s Greater Bay Area plan for a cross-border higher education and research hub.

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