​ Mr David Lam is not only a pioneer in the area of biosafety, but is also the first and only biosafety professional from Singapore on the World Health Organization’s international advisory panel on the speciality.

When Biological Safety Assistant Director Mr David Lam joined Singapore General Hospital (SGH) 15 years ago, it was mostly to help the hospital consolidate and move its many diagnostic laboratories into Academia, a new two-tower building to house the pathology division as well as clinical and administrative offices.

Not only were the laboratories dispersed in different buildings on the sprawling SGH Campus, the team tasked with the move also needed to ensure that the more than 120,000 samples — in containers of different sizes and shapes, requiring different storage conditions, anything from -80°C to room temperature — were moved safely and without incident.

“Some of these were very high-risk pathogens, and we could not afford to have an accident transporting them and have these biological agents spilt on the road. So the main job was to contain all this biological material from getting out of intended areas, basically the lab,” said Mr Lam.

He has come a long way since. Today, Mr Lam, 61, has built a wealth of knowledge and experience in the discipline, and has even been acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an expert in the field.

The native Hong Konger literally stumbled into the job when he was working as a project manager for a biomedical research firm in Singapore. When his then boss asked if he could take on the role of biosafety officer for a project, Mr Lam recalled with a chuckle: “My exact response to him was, ‘What do you mean by biosafety officer?’” He decided to take on the task anyway — and the rest is history.

To become a biosafety professional, Mr Lam attended a five-day course overseas but found that theory and practice were quite different. “When I was stuck, I had to go around and look for people more knowledgeable than I was to ask for their opinion,” he said. Coming onboard SGH, he also learnt on the job. “Working in SGH gave me the opportunity to polish my skills. Every case is unique, and you get to practise a lot. It’s a different kind of skillset,” he said, describing work in SGH as a once-in-alifetime experience. “People ask me where I get my job satisfaction. It’s when I see staff enjoying working in a safe environment — that’s when I know my job is done.”

His skills and experience were tested again during the COVID-19 pandemic. A shortage of beds at the start of the crisis led to SGH taking delivery of 50 containers to be used as temporary isolation facilities. He joined a team assigned to get the containers ready within weeks. “We didn’t know what we were up against as we did not get to see all the containers until the day they arrived,” Mr Lam said, adding that the team also faced physical challenges, like having to work inside the stuffy containers under intense heat as airconditioning had not been installed yet.

Even as the world settles down to a new normal living with the virus — and anything else that may emerge — Mr Lam’s work is no less hectic as he consults on biosafety matters ahead of the opening of two new buildings, the SGH Elective Care Centre and National Dental Centre Singapore, and the SGH Emergency Medicine Building. He is no stranger to megaprojects, as he was with the team planning and designing the new Sengkang General Hospital, particularly its specialised isolation and endoscopy facilities, from 2013–2018.

Mr Lam was also named to the WHO’s international advisory panel as a biosafety expert — the only one from Singapore, and one of four from Asia (Indonesia, Thailand and China). “The group advises WHO and other international organisations on issues from biosafety risk assessment to transfer of biological agents. It encompasses containment, disinfection, decontamination and all the new biosafety-related technologies,” he said.

Now a Singapore citizen, Mr Lam spends his leisure time with his wife and two daughters, and occasionally on his carpentry hobby, making items like shoe boxes and shelves.

However, it is obvious his life revolves around biosafety. He issues stop-work orders when he sees unsafe practices, even for SGH’s administrative offices. He reads ingredient labels on disinfectants in supermarkets to see if they would be able to “kill everything” as claimed. On the bus, he observes how fellow passengers wear their surgical masks — some below the nose, and some with an N95 on top of a first mask. “I think it’s an occupational hazard,” he said.

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