The number of laboratories handling the most dangerous pathogens is skyrocketing, especially in Asian countries with fewer regulations. This conclusion of a study, published in early March, rekindles concerns as the possibility that COVID-19 was born due to an accident in a Chinese laboratory resurfaces.
“We launched this report at the start of the pandemic, because there were a lot of questions about the origin of COVID-19,” says Gregory Koblentz, of George Mason University in suburban Washington, co-author of the Global Biolabs Report. “Our second edition shows that the problem is getting worse compared to 2021.”
In two years, the number of BSL4 labs (which handle the most dangerous pathogens) has grown from 47 to 51 – and 18 more are under construction or planned. Asia will experience the strongest growth, with nine laboratories in operation and 11 under construction. “In India, where biosafety regulations are less stringent, there are two BSL4 labs and four more that are planned,” says Koblentz.
In 2000, there were a dozen BSL4 labs around the world, a number that jumped to 25 in 2010. “There was an increase after the 9/11 attacks, because of the fear of bioterrorism, and also after the 2003 SARS in Hong Kong,” according to Koblentz. Two BSL4 labs are planned in Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan.
In Canada, there are two BSL4 labs in Winnipeg and another under construction at the University of Saskatchewan.
Canada scores 46 out of 48 on the biosecurity report card, compared to 42 for the United States.
The most disturbing phenomenon, according to Koblentz, is that of “enhanced BSL3” or BSL3. “These are BSL3-level labs, where you add biosafety elements to do gain-of-function testing and where you manipulate microbes to make them more dangerous to build countermeasures,” Koblentz says. But there are no clear guidelines on these biosecurity improvements. And above all, no study has been done to verify that they really improve biosecurity. Each lab, and sometimes each researcher, sets its own parameters. »
These labs are interesting because they are faster to implement. There are 57 currently in the world and two more under construction.
The most virulent microbes, such as Ebola, remain the preserve of BSL4. The researchers work there in bulky suits, connected to an outside air supply. “It takes time to learn how to work well in a BSL4 suit,” says Koblentz. In BSL3 , filter respirators and simple Tyvek coveralls are used. These filters are, however, very tight, which means that they must be motorized because otherwise breathing would be too difficult.
The only recommendations relating to BSL3 are American and optional. Koblentz thinks the World Health Organization should include them in the next version of its manual for biosafety laboratories. “In my opinion, there will be a fifth in a few years, because of the lessons of the pandemic. »
The other gap in the biosecurity recommendations relates to the collection of animal and environmental samples in the field. “There are very high risks of infection right now,” says Koblentz.
In mid-March, a Franco-American study questioned the Wuhan BSL4 laboratory lead as the origin of COVID-19, because an animal version of the virus was detected in a raccoon dog (a wild species resembling to a raccoon) at the Wuhan market.