Egypt is in a race to feed its rapidly expanding population from farms inside the country, to create “food security.” But in laboratories involved in that race, some agricultural researchers are worried about biological hazards.
“Nobody is following the biosecurity rules at laboratories, which reduce biological hazards and prevent disease transmission to researchers,” said Mohamed el-Sayed, a professor of plant pathology at the Agricultural Research Center, a government institution based in the Giza governorate.
Omar Radi Shalabi, a professor of nutrition sciences at the Agricultural Research Center and a colleague of el-Sayed’s, pointed to the deaths of at least three researchers over the past three years, each suffering from a disease that appeared related to their laboratory work.
“Researchers’ injuries while working at laboratories are increasing and there are no standards to ensure their safety and biosecurity in many agricultural research laboratories,” said Shalabi.
Egypt, like many countries in the region, faces significant challenges to achieve food security, especially in light of the negative impact of climate change on crops. According to a study published in 2013, “Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change in Egypt,” climate change poses a threat to Egyptian agriculture through effects like higher temperatures, reduced water availability, and changes in the frequency and amount of rainfall, all of which could reduce the productivity of croplands and increase pest populations and the spread of plant diseases.
“Researchers’ injuries while working at laboratories are increasing and there are no standards to ensure their safety and biosecurity in many agricultural research laboratories.”-Omar Radi Shalabi
A professor at Egypt’s Agricultural Research Center
According to Shalabi, researchers who study virology, fungi and plant pathology usually face the risk of multiple infections. “Many researchers died from fungi, bacteria and viruses while working,” he said.
In January, Ahmed Ibrahim, a scientist at the Soils, Water and Environmental Research Institute at the Agricultural Research Center, died at the age of 39 from a bacterial infection after trying to isolate a strain of soil bacteria that could be used in the biological control of plant pests.
“The infection was transmitted to the researcher by a type of bacteria that was not previously known to humans, which seriously damaged his immune system and left him unresponsive to any kind of treatment until he died,” said Shalabi.
Last year, Mohammed Saleh, an assistant professor in the fungi department of the center’s Horticulture Research Institute, in Cairo, died 15 days after receiving his doctorate due to a fungus that infected his lungs.
These fatal infections have caused many scientists to retreat from research to administration or to conduct simple experiments that do not involve working with toxic substances or hazardous organisms. “We have about 12,000 researchers, but the actual number of those working in risky laboratories is just 500,” said Mohamed Ali Fahim, a professor of climate change at the Agricultural Research Center. “Few researchers put themselves at risk.”
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No Compensation for Dangers
Despite the dangers faced by researchers at the Agricultural Research Center’s institutes, they say their compensation and benefits are not commensurate with the workload and risks to which they are exposed. After receiving his or her doctorate, a researcher earns about 4,500 Egyptian pounds a month, or around $270. The average monthly spending for an Egyptian household in 2018 was 4,916 Egyptian pounds, or $296, according to the country’s official statistics agency.
Researchers also complain about the lack of financial compensation if they come down with a work-related illness or injury.
“All the time, I work with pathogens, viruses, parasites, fungi and bacteria. I have family obligations; my salary is not enough to cover them, and I don’t get paid for possible risks of infections,” said Mahmoud Abdel Rahman, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Center. “This makes me feel unsafe about my family’s future.”
Mohamed Hassan, a researcher at the Institute of Plant Pathology Research, agrees with Abdel Rahman. “We do not receive an allowance for [the risk of] infection even though we have gotten final court rulings on our right to do so,” he said. “This makes us think about leaving work and looking for another source of income.”
Low Budgets, High Risks
Researchers who were interviewed agreed that poor financial support for agricultural research centers leads to a lack of biosafety.
For example, the centers do not always have a budget for the protective clothing that should be worn when working in laboratories with biological hazards. So researchers must either pay for their own clothing or work without it. Agricultural laboratories don’t always budget properly for the routine cleanings and disinfection that would help prevent infections at laboratories.
“The budget needs to be increased,” said Shalabi. “This is the only solution to protect researchers against any risks they face while working.”
The Agricultural Research Center’s budget for the current year is about 27 million Egyptian pounds ($1.64 million), a sharp drop down from the more than 200 million Egyptian pounds ($12 million) annual budgets during the 1990s and early 2000s, according to government statistics.
Fahim agrees with Shalabi on the need to increase funding for agricultural research in Egypt to improve the status of researchers and ensure scholars’ safety. But he also believes that laws are needed that support researchers’ occupational safety.
“There should be an increase in Egypt’s agricultural research,” he said. But before that happens, he added, “an agricultural scientific research policy should be established with clear provisions that ensure workers’ safety.”