Scientists fear future leaks as top labs proliferate
Maximum-security labs used to perform the most dangerous biological research have proliferated over the past decade, scientists say, warning that lax controls in some places could lead to another pandemic.
At least 59 Maximum Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories are planned, under construction or in operation around the world, covering 23 countries including UK, US, China, India, Gabon and Ivory Coast. They include the Chinese installation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, now at the center of a new US intelligence investigation to find out whether Covid-19 could have leaked from its laboratory.
Gregory Koblentz, associate professor of biodefense at George Mason University, and Filippa Lentzos at King’s College London, who mapped facilities, found that of the 42 laboratories where planning data was available, half were built in the past decade.
Three-quarters of all BSL-4 laboratories were located in urban centers. And only three of the 23 countries have national policies that oversee so-called dual-use research, where experiments conducted for civilian purposes can also be adapted for military purposes.
“Reporting is certainly improving in some countries like the UK and US where there has been media coverage about it, but we are not yet where we want to be,” said Lentzos, who is an expert in science and international security. “The more work there is, the more accidents there will be. “
The rapid expansion of these facilities, especially in countries like China, has heightened concerns about leaks of hazardous substances.
“The greater the number of institutions and the greater 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 are already happening in huge numbers, especially in places where biosecurity standards are lower. We need to strengthen the rules of biosecurity and biosecurity around the world. “
U.S. intelligence officials are currently investigating whether the Wuhan Institute could have played a role in the origins of Covid-19. The Chinese facility is home to one of six BSL-4 labs around the world that conducted controversial “gain-of-function” research on bat-related pathogens before the pandemic, according to Ebright.
Regardless of the findings of US agencies, Covid-19 has already drawn attention to biomedical research on deadly pathogens, much of which is not subject to any international surveillance or surveillance.
According to the Global Health Security Index, benchmarked by Koblentz and Lentzos, just under a quarter of countries with laboratories operating at BSL-4 have “high” levels of biosafety readiness, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. About a third, including China, have “medium” levels, while 41% have “low” levels, as in South Africa.
Lentzos and Koblentz’s research adds to the concerns of many scientists about the already high number of accidents involving biomedical research, even in the most secure facilities.
In the United States, the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control jointly monitor the use of 67 different types of toxins and other potentially hazardous materials. Their latest report found that in the United States in 2019, these substances were lost 13 times and accidentally released 219 times. This has led more than 1,000 people to undergo medical evaluations and some to take preventative drugs. None, however, contracted any identified disease as a result.
US surveillance of its domestic facilities was stepped up after 2001, when an attacker killed five people while sending anthrax believed to have come from the US Army’s medical research lab at Fort Detrick to multiple media outlets and two members of the Congress.
The 2001 anthrax attacks are not the only example of laboratory security failures 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 northwestern China have been infected suffering from brucellosis, a bacterial disease with flu-like symptoms, after a vaccine factory leak.
China has been particularly keen to build more maximum-security laboratories to strengthen its scientific research capacity. Bai Chunli, former president of the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote an article last year warning of the country’s “obvious shortcomings” in its number of high-level biosafety labs compared to the United States.
Guangdong province announced in May that it plans to build between 25 and 30 biosafety level three laboratories and one BSL-4 laboratory, over the next five years.
But some Chinese officials have warned of the lack of security at existing facilities. In 2019, Yuan Zhiming, director of the BSL-4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote a review of safety gaps in Chinese laboratories. “Many high-level BSLs have insufficient operational funds for routine but vital processes,” Yaun wrote, adding that maintenance costs were “generally overlooked”.
“Due to limited resources, some BSL-3 labs operate with extremely minimal running costs or in some cases not at all,” he said. In 2020, the central government passed a new law to improve national biosafety standards.
Critics say the secrecy in China surrounding activities at these facilities makes it difficult to know how secure they are. In January 2020, Beijing told biosafety labs working on Sars-Cov-2 samples that they needed government permission to release any information about the virus.
Many scientists have said that China’s approach to the international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 has shown the problems with performing high-risk experiments in the country. In March, 13 countries criticized China for failing to grant international experts full access to data and samples relating to the start of the pandemic.
“What we’ve seen so far with regard to the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a lab that is not open and transparent about the type of work it does,” Lentzos said. “When you have these kinds of labs, you have to make sure they’re open, transparent, and that you engage with your peers. “