Irrespective of the answer, the risk of future pandemics originating from research with dangerous pathogens is real.
The lab-leak discussion in the Wuhan Institute of Virology that is nestled in the hilly outskirts of Wuhan, is the focal point. It’s just one of 59 maximum containment labs in operation and under construction or planned around the world currently. These labs are known as biosafety level 4 (BSL4) labs which are designed and built in such a way so that the researchers can safely work with the most dangerous pathogens on the planet, the ones that can cause serious health disease and for which no treatment or vaccines exists.
Hence, the researchers are required to wear full-body pressurised suits with independent oxygen. The largest concentration of BSL4 labs is in Europe, with 25 labs and it is spread over 23 countries.
Australia has four and Africa three. North America and Asia have roughly equal numbers, with 14 and 13 respectively. Like the Wuhan Institute of Virology, three-quarters of the world’s BSL4 labs are in urban centres.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology with 3,000m² of lab space, is the largest BSL4 lab in the world, though it will soon be overtaken by the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University in the US. It will boast over 4,000m² of BSL4 lab space, when it is complete.
However, most of the labs are significantly smaller with half of the 44 labs where data is available being under 200m² and is less than half the size of a professional basketball court or about three-quarters the size of a tennis court.
Leaving 20% run by universities and 20% by biodefence agencies, around 60% of BSL4 labs are government-run public-health institutions. These labs are used to research these pathogens in order to improve our scientific understanding of how they work and to develop new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics tests or else they are used to diagnosed infections with highly lethal and transmissible pathogens. But far from all of these labs score well on safety and security.
The US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative index shows that only about one-quarter of countries with BSL4 labs received high scores for biosafety and biosecurity. This index shows that plenty of room for improvement for countries to produce comprehensive system of biorisk management.
Membership of the International Experts Group of Biosafety and Biosecurity Regulators, where national regulatory authorities share best practices in this field, is another indicator of national biosafety and biosecurity practices.
Only 40% of countries with BSL4 labs are members of the forum which include: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, UK and the US. And no lab has yet signed up to the voluntary biorisk management system (ISO 35001), introduced in 2019 to establish management processes to reduce biosafety and biosecurity risks.