Covid-19 lab leak fight obscures the global rise of high-security biolabs

There are a growing number of high-containment laboratories around the world conducting potentially risky scientific research, despite a lack of global agreement on how to ensure they are safe.

There are 69 so-called biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, facilities designed to study dangerous infectious pathogens under construction or planned around the world, according to Global Biolabs, a tracking project run by King’s College London and George Mason University. Are. Virginia. About a decade ago, there were only 25.

These are laboratories in which employees wear moonsuits and handle deadly viruses and organisms, which are monitored by highly sophisticated security systems.

Scientific security has re-emerged as a high-stakes global issue in the weeks after the US Department of Energy suggested that intelligence showing a laboratory leak was the most likely origin of the Covid-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, Congress is holding the first of a series of hearings on the matter. China has rejected the idea of ​​a lab leak, and the scientific consensus remains that the pandemic began when the coronavirus jumped from animals to people.

Health scares, from the 2001 anthrax attacks to the outbreaks of SARS, Ebola and Zika, have prompted many countries to invest huge amounts of money in building such laboratories. More facilities than ever are handling, and in some cases genetically enhancing, infectious pathogens. BSL-4 laboratories can now be found in over 25 countries. They are often located in cities, where a loose virus or harmful organism can potentially spread rapidly.

BSL-4 labs are expensive. Experts say that in the US, it could cost up to $1.25 billion to build, and just maintaining security at such a facility could run more than $2 million annually. But cost has not been a barrier. A dozen new BSL-4 facilities have been announced since the start of the pandemic, with most of them being built in Asia, from India to the Philippines. There has also been an increase in the creation of laboratories that have lower safety measures, called BSL-3, where even risky pathogens can be handled. Data does not exist on the number of these laboratories globally.

For decades, scientists from the US, China, Russia, Canada and Europe have swapped ideas to standardize safety and security amid the biolab building boom. At least 15 organizations have helped develop guidelines on how to properly deal with viruses and bacteria, but the problem is that none of the groups have the authority to make sure they are being implemented.

“Nobody wants a lab accident,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of George Mason’s Biodefense Graduate Program and co-leader of the Global Biolabs Project. “Unfortunately this issue has become politicized and polarized. This is because the loudest people have the microphone.

What a global collaboration during the pandemic, which has killed more than 6.8 million people worldwide. A group of scientists once met regularly to work toward improving international laboratory safety, but meetings stalled during the pandemic. “Things are on a hiatus,” said James Le Duc, who formerly headed one of America’s largest bioconservation facilities and has attended the meetings.


The debate surrounding the origins of Covid has made it difficult for scientists to collaborate in ways once considered normal. Before the pandemic, the US National Institutes of Health conducted research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading world center for coronavirus research. China is home to three BSL-4 laboratories and one more is planned.

The idea that COVID started with a lab leak was initially opposed by the international scientific community, but it quickly gained support from Republicans in the US. Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in an appearance on Fox News that the pandemic was the result of a lab leak in China.

On Wednesday, US lawmakers plan to grill former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, who has said a lab leak is more likely than any other scenario. According to documents released ahead of the meeting, committee members will focus on what they see as efforts by the NIH and other scientific leaders to reduce the lab-leak hypothesis.

Highly secured laboratories are meant to ensure safe conditions for risky studies. Research in which scientists make biological agents more potent and potentially more harmful can be used in the future to understand virus mutations and create better vaccines. The downside is that these super-pathogens can escape the laboratory if they are not handled with adequate safety practices.

“High-containment laboratories are the foundation of our pandemic preparedness,” said Gerald Parker, director of the Epidemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. He spent more than 30 years working in the federal government on global health and national security. “It’s generally being done for the right reasons, but it has to be done in the right way.”

poor visibility

Despite all the noise about China’s lab-leak theory, the US government knows little about the high-risk research being conducted within its borders.

Last year, researchers at Boston University sought to study the Omicron variant by combining parts of it with the original strain of Covid. Their findings caused an uproar: Some scientists accused the BU lab of inadvertently creating a more dangerous version of the coronavirus.

US regulators said they did not know about the study and asked for clarification about the government grants involved, as that kind of funding would have allowed them to review BU’s work. However, while federal money was used to purchase the equipment, it did not fund the study itself. The university said the work was done in a BSL-3 facility, subject to oversight by a university committee and the Boston Public Health Commission. In short, the US government had no authority over research, regardless of whether the work potentially gave rise to a more infectious or more lethal form of Covid. At the same time, BU said that it was done in a safe manner.

“All we see is material that gets published,” Koblentz said. “Is this the tip of the iceberg?”


The White House has made improving lab oversight a priority. And a group of federal advisers has finalized new guidance to oversee studies where bacteria or viruses are made more lethal.

“Practicing scientists who would lose more autonomy over their research say it goes too far,” said Philippa Lentzos, director of King’s College London’s graduate program in science and international security, who runs the Global Biolabs Project with George Mason’s Koblentz. Let’s run “But I don’t think it goes far enough.”

The NIH says that US government oversight is widespread, pointing to the regulation of federally funded research. But there are some blind spots when it comes to privately funded research – the kind carried out by BU and by drug companies. In the 1970s, the NIH wanted to regulate DNA-manipulating research developed by scientists who would go on to start the biotech company Genentech. Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Jacob K. Javits said in a letter to then-President, “If NIH guidelines are necessary to protect the public in federally funded research, it is clear that they are also necessary for privately funded research and application.” ” Gerald R. Ford in 1976.

But according to an NIH report, industry groups were concerned about protecting proprietary information and future patents. Efforts to enact rules that applied to universities and drug companies ultimately failed in Congress.

Global Drawbacks

International monitoring is even worse. Reporting of the whereabouts of BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories is spotty, and the designations carry little significance. There are no global consequences for laboratory accidents, or procedures for determining how to deal with them if they occur.

Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, said, “The fact that we have to rely on academia to tell us how many are in the world is because there is no requirement for countries to declare that they have these facilities.” Are.” Chemical and Biological Defense Programs in the Obama Administration.

In this vacuum, nations are self-governing. According to Global Biolabs, only one country with a maximum-containment facility, Canada, has laws governing “dual-use research,” which can be used for good or harm. Meanwhile, China, which is not part of any high-profile biorisk management network, enacted its own biosafety law in April 2021, some of which focuses on responsible laboratory conduct.

Despite not having an agreement on security, other countries are also moving forward. According to Global Biolabs, out of nine countries that have announced plans to build laboratories in the wake of the Covid outbreak, five will build their first BSL-4 facilities namely Brazil, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Singapore and Spain.

Intended to demonstrate scientific prowess, Weber said “they have become an object of national prestige”.


Yet due to the debate over COVID origins, many experts are reluctant to engage on the topic of international high-containment laboratory oversight. Even the World Health Organization initially declined to answer questions about efforts to strengthen laboratory safety without looking at early signs “to avoid miscommunication” due to the “apparent complexity and sensitivity of the subject”. Will give WHO’s Epidemics and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention branch, said by email.

Kojima later said that the WHO continues to work with all member states on global standards. A “feasible approach”, he said, could be to start a discussion on how nations can regulate their own safety and security. This would put the responsibility of enforcement back on each country. There are no plans to create an international body that can step in if something goes wrong.

Russia is taking advantage of rising geopolitical tensions and language of biolabs as a threat. In August 2021, the government of Vladimir Putin announced that it would build 15 BSL-4 laboratories around the world by 2024, which would be called the “National Sanitary Shield”. Russia vowed to meet its goals by expanding its existing network of laboratories, both inside and outside the country, in places such as Guinea and Vietnam. The Global Biolabs Project does not include these in its count of planned laboratories because they do not appear to be physically present. But Russia’s gesture alone shows how strong these labs are likely to be.

In the face of this global laboratory arms race, “it is more important than ever that we build a coalition of most of the world’s nations to fill these gaps in biosafety and security,” Weber said. The problem is, “international cooperation looks impossible today.”

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