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Scientists fear future leaks as top-level labs proliferate

Coronavirus pandemic

Scientists fear future leaks as top-level labs proliferate

At least 59 facilities, like Wuhan Institute, are planned or in operation across world

Security personnel outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organisation in February. US intelligence officials are investigating whether the facility could have played a role in the origins of Covid-19. © Thomas Peter/REUTERS

Maximum security laboratories used to carry out the most dangerous biological research have proliferated in the past decade, scientists say, warning that lax controls at some locations could lead to another pandemic. 

At least 59 maximum biosafety level 4 labs (BSL-4) are planned, under construction or in operation across the world, spanning 23 countries including the UK, US, China, India, Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire. They include the Chinese facility at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, now at the centre of a renewed US intelligence investigation into whether Covid-19 could have leaked from its lab.

Gregory Koblentz, an associate professor of biodefence at George Mason University, and Filippa Lentzos at King’s College London, who mapped the facilities, found that of the 42 labs where planning data was available, half were built in the last decade.

Three-quarters of all the BSL-4 labs were in urban centres. And only three of the 23 countries have national policies that provide oversight of so-called dual-use research, where experiments that are conducted for civilian purposes can also be adapted for military ends.

“Reporting is getting better certainly in some countries such as the UK and US where there has been media coverage of this, but we’re not yet where we want to be,” said Lentzos, who is an expert in science and international security. “The more work that is going on, the more accidents will happen.”

The rapid expansion of such facilities, particularly in countries like China, has heightened concerns about leaks of dangerous substances.

“The larger the number of institutions and the larger the number of individuals with access to these dangerous agents, the greater the risk,” said Richard Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “Accidents and leaks already happen in very large numbers, especially in places that have weaker biosafety standards. We need to strengthen biosafety and biosecurity rules around the world.”

US intelligence officials are currently investigating whether the Wuhan Institute could have played any role in the origins of Covid-19. The Chinese facility hosts one of no more than six BSL-4 labs in the world that had been conducting contentious “gain of function” research on bat-related pathogens before the pandemic, according to Ebright.

Whatever the US agencies conclude, Covid-19 has already focused attention on biomedical research into deadly pathogens, much of which is subject to no international policing or oversight.

According to the Global Health Security Index, which is referenced by Koblentz and Lentzos, just under a quarter of countries with labs operating at BSL-4 have “high” levels of biosecurity preparedness, such as the US and UK. Around a third, including China, have “medium” levels, while 41 per cent have “low” levels, such as South Africa.

Lentzos and Koblentz’s research adds to existing worries among many scientists about the already high number of accidents involving biomedical research, even at the most secure facilities. 

In the US, the health department and the Centers for Disease Control jointly monitor the use of 67 different types of toxins and other potentially dangerous materials. Their latest report found that in the US in 2019, such substances were lost 13 times and accidentally released 219 times. This led to over 1,000 people undergoing medical assessments, and some taking preventive drugs. None however contracted identified illnesses as a result.

US surveillance of its domestic facilities was stepped up after 2001, when an attacker killed five people by sending anthrax believed to have come from the US army medical research lab at Fort Detrick to several media outlets and two members of Congress. 

US surveillance of its domestic facilities was stepped up after 2001 when anthrax, believed to have come from a US army medical research lab, was sent to media outlets and two members of Congress  © Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty

The 2001 anthrax attacks are not the only example of a failure of lab security in recent decades. 

In 2004, nine people were infected with Sars and one person died after two researchers were separately exposed to the virus while working at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing. In November 2019, just a month before the first confirmed case of Covid-19, more than 6,000 people in north-west China were infected with brucellosis, a bacterial disease with flu-like symptoms, after a leak at a vaccine plant.

China has been particularly keen to build more maximum-security labs in order to strengthen its scientific research capacity. Bai Chunli, the former president of the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote an article last year warning of the country’s “clear shortcomings” in its number of high-level biosafety labs in comparison with the US.

Guangdong province announced in May that it was planning to build between 25 to 30 biosafety level three labs and one BSL-4 lab, in the next five years.

But some Chinese officials have warned about poor security at existing facilities. In 2019 Yuan Zhiming, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, wrote a review of the safety deficiencies in China’s laboratories. “Several high-level BSLs have insufficient operational funds for routine yet vital processes,” Yuan wrote, adding that maintenance costs were “generally neglected”.

“Due to the limited resources, some BSL-3 laboratories run on extremely minimal operational costs or in some cases none at all,” he said. In 2020, the central government passed a new law to improve national biosafety standards.

Critics say secrecy in China around the activities at such facilities makes it difficult to know how secure they are. In January 2020, Beijing told biosafety laboratories working on Sars-Cov-2 samples that they needed government clearance to release any information about the virus.

Critics say secrecy in China around the activities at facilities such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology makes it difficult to know how secure they are © Shepherd Hou/EPA

Many scientists have said the Chinese approach to the international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 has shown the problems of running high-risk experiments in the country. In March, 13 countries criticised China for not allowing international experts full access to data and samples relating to the start of the pandemic.

“What we’ve seen so far in relation to the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a lab that’s not being open and transparent about the sorts of work it is doing,” said Lentzos. “When you have these sorts of labs you have to ensure they are open, transparent and that you engage with your peers.”

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