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US Senator in Kenya To Evaluate Security Threats to Biological Research Facilities

U S. Senator Dick Lugar, left, stands next to Dr. Solomon Mpoke, director of the Kenya Medical Research Institute speaks to journalists in Nairobo, Kenya

A delegation from the United States is in Kenya to evaluate major biomedical facilities and ensure their protection against terrorist threats.

United States Senator Richard Lugar led a delegation from the United States Department of Defense on a tour of the Kenya Medical Research Institute to address and strengthen the security around the country's biological agents.

Inspecting the Nairobi facility early Friday, Lugar said he was impressed with the dedication and capabilities of the KEMRI team, but found serious weaknesses which needed to be addressed. "The inadequacy of that facility is obvious, and the officers today told of hopes and plans they have to build a much more confident facility to make certain of the security. We've had the privilege of visiting three countries in Africa during this tour. All are doing remarkable things to serve people," he says, "But all have biosecurity problems. Therefore, we want to work together as partners to attempt to provide a very different situation."

While KEMRI does not manufacture any of its own pathogens, the institute has collected some dangerous substances, including Ebola, Marburg and Anthrax.

Lugar told journalists the facility did not have enough capacity to store some of the pathogens which the laboratory had collected. Some of the samples were stored in boxes stacked in hallways in lieu of proper storage.

The U.S. Senator also expressed concern at the proximity of the local population. In some cases, houses surrounding the research facility come right up to the fence, creating health concerns and challenges in the event of an accident in the lab.

More worrying for Lugar and his Kenyan counterparts is the threat of terrorism.

Kenya last experienced a major terrorist attack in 1998, when al-Qaida operatives bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, killing over 200 and wounding thousands. Over the past year, there have been rising fears of renewed attacks from al- Qaida linked insurgents al Shabab. The Somali group was responsible for June attacks in Uganda which killed 72. It is widely believed Shabab has operatives in Kenya.

The Director of KEMRI, Dr. Solomon Mpoke dismissed fears of an immediate threat but told journalists the long term security of their pathogens was a serious concern. "The reason for this visit, really, is to prevent that kind of thing from happening," he said. "We do not immediately think of that threat right now; but the possibility is there and we need to be extra cautious that, if it does happen, we shall be able to contain it."

The stop in Kenya is part of a tour to address biosecurity in the region. Lugar said the United States was committed to improving the capacity and security of facilities handling dangerous elements, but did not specify what his government was prepared to provide.