Biosecurity researchers presented the world’s first complete map of maximum biological containment facilities on Thursday. Those labs, designated in the United States as Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs, deal with the deadliest diseases in high-security environments ranging from pressurized “spacesuits” to air-locked labs and had never been included in a consolidated database until today.
The authors offered a set of ideas for leveraging the map to establish a global strategy for biosecurity in a Thursday webcast.
On the call, Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity researcher at King’s College London, stated, “The goal of our initiative is to improve public awareness about Biosafety Level 4 facilities, and, more critically, to reinforce national and international virus management policy.”
That includes everything from current training on deactivating a live virus to improved methods for reporting problems when they do happen.
Lentzos stated, “Clinical work on pathogens is vital for public health, biological breakthroughs, and disease prevention.” “However, some of these operations pose serious dangers to both lab personnel and the general public,” says the report. “Pathogens may be taken from a lab, or a lab insider may utilize their knowledge, skills, and access for malicious purposes.”
To be clear, no scientific evidence exists linking SARS-CoV-2 to such a facility, despite this week’s media frenzy. The virus’s genome suggests that it was not bioengineered or cultured by humans, though only inferentially. Though many virologists believe a previously undiagnosed SARS-CoV-2 may have infected a researcher, most think that a spillover outside of the lab is more plausible. Coronaviruses transmit from animals to people with worrying regularity—a new one, originating in dogs, was identified in Malaysia only last month—while no new infection has ever emerged from a laboratory. Even in less tumultuous geopolitical settings, figuring out the actual origin story of the 2001 coronavirus pandemic, SARS-1, took years. (It involves caged civet cats and wild bats.)
That isn’t to say that lab safety isn’t a serious concern. Regardless of where SARS-CoV-2 first appeared, the danger of lab mishaps has increased as the number of laboratories has grown. In the previous ten years, 21 top biosecurity labs have been constructed, according to the report. The actual number might be more significant, as the researchers could not locate the creation dates of roughly 20 labs. According to the research, three-quarters of these are in metropolitan areas, heightening the possibility that a mistake might snowball into an epidemic.
At these labs, high-risk occurrences have occurred. They usually entail a BSL-4 lab delivering samples of a virus that hasn’t been fully inactivated, such as Ebola and Marburg, to a less secure facility. One person died of SARS-1 in Beijing in 2004 after her daughter, a virologist, became infected in a lab accident. (This incident did not occur in a BSL-4 lab, and SARS is not classified as a highest-risk pathogen.)
The difficulty with attempting to count these labs is that there is no universally accepted definition of a BSL-4 facility. On the cusp are laboratories that might ramp up to BSL-4 in an emergency or mobile BSL-4 laboratories that could do autopsies in the event of an anthrax epidemic. There are no formal agreements for safety procedures at the highest-security labs, while the World Health Organization has issued a set of suggestions.
The map was launched on Tuesday and included preliminary information on 59 labs’ biosecurity policies. Although they are dispersed around the European Union, Russia, and numerous non-EU nations, the bulk is in Europe. In North America, there are 14, and in Asia, there are 13.
Only 17 nations have national biosafety organizations or are members of international collaborations, out of the 23 with BSL-4 facilities. According to the researchers, international entities should assist the other nations in developing their law and internal control in accordance with global norms. Gregory Koblentz, a coauthor and biodefense expert at George Mason University, adds, “It’s not enough for a single lab to establish its policies.”
However, this necessitates the creation of an international institution to regulate biosafety. Lentzos suggested two options during the webinar: the World Health Organization or the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention. “I believe neither institution is geared equipped to conduct this type of job in its current configuration,” she added. “The WHO would be a better match, but the WHO does not have this type of mandate. As a result, some reorganization would be required.”
As American politicians seek to blame China for COVID-19, international collaboration may become more challenging to achieve, making it more difficult to avoid future lab-related outbreaks by rising tensions over the problem.
Another critical problem that such an international agency would have is establishing a clear risk assessment of various study kinds. The recent focus on “gain of function research,” in which bacteria are transformed in the lab to examine how they can become human pathogens, was mentioned by Lentzos. “Gain of function is simply one form of potentially high-risk study, in our opinion. Simply determining whether or not a lab does gain of function research does not reveal anything. You should identify high-risk studies in a broader sense.”
This entails locating other, lower-security facilities that may be conducting high-risk research. According to the researchers, this study was limited to a small group of labs as a starting point.
They want to expand the project to include BSL-4 laboratories that only deal with animal infections and BSL-3 labs that deal with slightly less lethal diseases but still exceedingly hazardous, including TB and plague. When we told colleagues about the work previously, they said, “OK, you’re mapping the BSL-4 laboratories.” Is that, however, where your dangers lie?” Lentzos elaborated. “We wholeheartedly concur. BSL-4 laboratories are just the tip of the iceberg.”