Warning over worldwide boom in labs designed to handle deadliest pathogens
There were fears today about the boom in laboratories designed to tackle the world’s most dangerous pathogens in the wake of Covid.
There are now more than 100 facilities worldwide tasked with storing and experimenting with viruses such as Ebola and bird flu.
But leading scientists are concerned about the lab’s lack of oversight, saying lax biosafety regulations are a particular problem in Asia.
A lab leak is one of the leading theories about the origins of Covid, with China accused of covering up the possibility that the virus escaped from a high-security location in Wuhan, the city where the pandemic began.
The coalition of British and American scientists behind today’s report claimed there are now 69 Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 facilities.
This map shows all known BSL-4 laboratories with countries shaded based on how scientists ranked their overall biorisk management score. Green is good, yellow is average, and red is bad. Some planned labs have not been included because their exact location in the country has not been announced
This map shows all known ‘BSL-3+’ labs that appear in the report. It also shows countries color coded according to how scientists rate their overall biohazard management, green countries are good, yellow are average and red countries are performing poorly. Gray does not indicate rank. Some planned labs have not been included because their exact location in the country has not been announced
This is up from 59 just two years ago.
Famous BSL-4 labs include Porton Down here in the UK and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the center of the Covid lab theory.
Experiments in these labs may involve what some commentators consider gain-of-function, a wildly controversial branch of science that attempts to manipulate pathogens. Some can be more deadly.
About 75 percent of current BSL-4 labs are located in urban areas.
The report warns that this could “exacerbate” the potential impact of an accidental release, with the labs containing pathogens such as arbor pathogens such as smallpox, Ebola and Lassa fever.
Experts are now also very concerned about the emergence of a new kind of lab they call BSL-3+, with 57 identified around the world.
Most are in Europe, with 80 percent in urban areas.
These facilities conduct research on viruses such as avian flu, without the stricter biosecurity procedures of BSL-4 laboratories.
In addition, as more BSL-3+ laboratories are located in urban environments with dense populations, the risk of a potential leak of pathogens increases.
Pictured: Wuhan Institute of Virology. Fears that the next pandemic will be caused by a leak from a lab come as more and more attention turns to the Wuhan lab as a possible starting point for Covid
These tables show the number of BSL-4 and BSL-3+ labs, both open and under construction on each continent
This chart shows rules and restrictions for research that can make high-risk pathogens more deadly. Only Canada, the US and the UK scored 50 or more
This chart shows the countries with high-risk operational or planned labs, ranked by the strength of their biorisk management policies that could prevent a deadly pathogen from being released or developed. The lower the score, the fewer or weaker the measures
The findings come from the Global BioLabs Report 2023, released by Kings College London.
Dr. Filippa Lentzos, an expert in international security at King’s College London, said the explosion of labs is concerning, especially in parts of Asia, given the general lack of biorisk management policies in the region.
She said: ‘We are seeing a rapid expansion of maximum containment laboratories in Asia, but many of these countries are performing poorly on biohazard management.
“There has been a global explosion in the construction of laboratories handling dangerous pathogens.
“But that was not accompanied by sufficient biosecurity and biosecurity supervision.”
Labs that use pathogens in research must meet a certain standard of biosafety regulations to work with them.
The more dangerous the pathogen, the higher the BSL level required.
For example, BSL-4 labs may have armed guards, telling researchers to wear fully enclosed PPE suits during experiments.
But unlike BSL4 facilities, there is no requirement under the Biological Weapons Convention for confidence building measures to declare BSL3+ laboratories and their activities.
This means there is “no evidence” that the biosecurity measures in these new laboratories are adequate for the research they are conducting, the report’s authors warned.
They can therefore self-impose higher biosecurity measures than standard BSL-3 laboratories, such as additional training and equipment, but this is not standardized.
The report found that the most common pathogen studied in BSL-3+ was avian influenza, which has been tipped by multiple scientists as capable of causing the next pandemic.
Some are also feared that they are researching job gains.
Overall, 40 percent of the 57 BSL-3+ labs laboratories identified in the report were government-owned.
Another 40 percent was owned by universities, with the rest split evenly between private companies and the military.
Dr. Gregory Koblentz, co-project leader of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US, said: “We urgently need coordinated international action to address rising biohazards.”
The team behind the new report previously named and shamed the countries with the most lax rules on laboratories hosting the world’s most dangerous pathogens.
They found that Saudi Arabia, Gabon and Ivory Coast were at the bottom of the list in terms of safety standards in BSL-4 laboratories.
Canada, the US, Australia and the UK generally had some of the best standards, according to infectious disease experts who ranked all known facilities around the world.
Profit from function research: everything you need to know about the risky lab experiments
What is feature gain?
It is a highly controversial research practice in which a pathogen is deliberately altered to improve its ability to cause disease.
At the most basic level, scientists modify them to make them more infectious or deadly.
Usually, tests are performed on human cells or rodents – to see how they behave in tightly controlled lab environments.
Why was it done?
The rationale for such experiments is that they allow scientists to effectively look ‘around the corner’ and anticipate how a pathogen might evolve naturally.
It also gives scientists a chance to better understand its effects on humans and how it behaves.
In theory, this could accelerate the development of medicines and vaccines, especially for infectious diseases that are currently untreatable.
Is it dangerous?
Profit-of-function research – despite being conducted in biocontainment facilities with workers in safety suits and sealed doors – is wildly controversial.
Critics argue that the benefits of the study are not worth the potential risks, however small they are.
Some scientists fear that the development of mutated viruses could lead to the next pandemic, if they were ever accidentally leaked from a lab.
Such an event is one of the origin theories for the original Covid virus, which was first spotted in Wuhan, near the now infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Defenders insist that such changes can occur naturally, however.
Is it only done on Covid?
Despite being thrust into the spotlight during the Covid pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 is not the only pathogen that has been experimented with in this way.
Gains in function have been used for years, for example by creating more drought-resistant plants and adapting E. coli in such a way that it breaks down plastic waste.
What is feature gain?
There is a huge debate among experts about what exactly ‘gain of function’ research is.
Some studies do not aim to intentionally create a more dangerous pathogen, but may do so by modifying it to learn more about how it infects cells.