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Why Improvement of Bio Safety Should Not Be Delayed Any Longer

Bio-lab safety has attracted more attention now is view of the ongoing pandemic and distress. — Bharat Dogra


While the ongoing pandemic has brought so much distress there is just  one positive possibility also that this may lead to long-delayed bio-safety reform as the neglected but extremely significant issue of bio-lab safety has started receiving  more attention now, both at the level of experts as well as common, safety conscious citizens. 

We should clinch this opportunity to introduce badly needed, already delayed corrections in bio-lab safety which is in a terrible shape just now. The previous opportunity that appeared in 2014 was missed as only some temporary reforms was made. We should not miss the ongoing period of opportunity to set bio-safety in order. 

Now people all over the world have become very aware that there are hundreds of bio-labs in the world where very dangerous viruses or other disease causing organisms are kept for scientific research use and even a one-time accident or leak  of high toxicity from one of these bio-labs has the capacity, depending on several circumstances, to cause very widespread damage. More and more people are now also becoming aware that  several of these labs  routinely  create viruses, generally by using genetic engineering, that are much more dangerous than those that exist in nature. 

This increasing consciousness should be used to push for much greater strictness of safety regulations backed by transparency so that greater safety in this critical area should be ensured to protect millions of people all over the world. In addition the critical issue of banning some kinds of most risky research, which has already been debated in more limited scientific circles for years, should get more emphasis in public debates and campaigns.

Several scientists working in this specialized area are increasingly concerned about growing safety concerns and one main reason for this is the recent proliferation of highest safety category bio-labs in some countries, particularly the USA and China. In China mainland area, for example, not only a highest bio-containment level (BSL-4 ) lab already exists in Wuhan but in addition there are plans to build between five to seven BSL-4 level labs across the Chinese mainland by year 2025. Some scientists in western countries ask questions about why China is going on such a spree of creating these BSL-4 labs with all the attendant risks. Will these work in transparent ways, they ask. (BSL-4 is the highest level of bio-containment). 

The response of some Chinese scientists is to point out that in the USA there are over 15 such labs and there are several in Europe as well, so why should not the Chinese scientists aspire for equal levels of scientific advances? 

There was a big proliferation in such highest safety category labs in the USA after 9/11 terrorist attack plus an anthrax scare and the number, placed at 5 in 2001, tripled  to about 15 or more in 2008.  This was justified by need for bio-defense research and over the period 2001-06 36 billion dollars were spent on bio-defense and related research work.

Keith Rhodes, Chief Technologist  at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the USA wrote in his report, “a major proliferation of high containment BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs has taken place in the USA.” Further he stated that no single federal agency knows how many such labs there are in the USA and no one is responsible for determining the aggregate risk associated with the expansion of these high containment labs. 

If we are not looking at just BSL-4 labs but all high-containment labs which may be handling  dangerous biological materials then the number of such labs may be quite high. A 2017 report of the GAO mentions about 276 high containment select agent labs in the USA, and this is likely to be an underestimate (as reported by Elisabeth Eaves in a report written for the New Yorker and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists).  

In a 2015 report titled Bio-labs in Your Backyard USA Today documented hundreds of safety violations and accidents at high containment labs. 

In 2014 in the UK the Guardian found that British high-security labs had experienced more than a hundred near misses and accidents over a period of five years.

In the Soviet Union such incidents were less openly documented but the accidents at a lab in Sverdlovsk , which involved the release of a puff anthrax spores, reportedly had the potential to result in mass deaths but higher damage beyond 64 deaths was averted by direction of wind.

Another aspect of high risks relates to transport of disease causing organisms. In 2015 Defense Department of the USA revealed that the Armed Dugway Proving Ground  at Utah had sent as many as 575 shipments of live anthrax bacteria to 194 labs in the USA and 7 other countries (As reported in the report by Elisabeth Eaves)!

For many people the most immediate reason for  getting involved with this issue relates to the several reports which link the dangerous corona virus research  in the Wuhan Virology Institute to a possible accidental leak from there and the subsequent spread of COVID-19. These people were also very disturbed by the widely discussed expose in the Mail on Sunday which revealed that the US National Institute of Health, a government Agency, had itself given a $3.7 million research grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This fact was of course already known much before to most senior virologists but they had chosen to remain rather quiet about this as many of them are themselves involved in similar type of research relating to potential pandemic pathogens (PPP research), also referred to at a broader level as gains-of-function research. It is in the context of such research and bio-defense research that the proliferation of high security labs is often seen.

Such high levels of bio-containment generally indicate that some very dangerous pathogens are being handled in these labs and there are possibilities of leak that can have very adverse and dangerous impacts. In some labs the supposedly civilian or medical research may be a cover for bio-defense research or even biological warfare research. The dividing line can often be very thin, and there is a lot of secrecy in defense matters.

There are other, more routine areas of concern too. The use of monkeys in such labs, more likely in China as there are more regulations over this in the west, is also an area of concern. As a senior scientist recently said while expressing concern about the presence of monkeys in such labs—monkeys run, they scratch, they bite.

Most cases of actual leaks or their possibility have been reported by US official systems from time to time because of the greater transparency & counter-checks within the systems. Less transparent, more opaque systems like the Chinese can be more dangerous unless special steps are taken in the near future to increase transparency.

An NBC news report dated July 17 2014 titled ‘CDC (Centre of Disease Control and Prevention) cracks down on labs after anthrax, bird flu  scares’ stated that government health officials (in the USA) were cracking down on safety at the nation’s highest level bio-security labs after a disturbing series of lapses, including an anthrax scare, discovery of lost vials containing live smallpox and a new report of the accidental shipment of highly pathogenic bird flu. This report added that Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, had announced an immediate moratorium on all shipments of biological materials from CDC bio-security 3 and 4 level  labs until problems are addressed.

Frieden said publicly that what had been discovered was totally unacceptable behavior and these events should never have happened. In the resulting uproar, concerned scientists recalled some previous lapses. One of these related to the accidental release of live anthrax at the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology (BRAAT0 lab) in 2006. Another accident the same year  related to the release of live botulinum toxins from another CDC lab.

Tim Murphy, Chairman of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee said, “We have learnt that the dangerous transfer of possible live anthrax bacteria by the CDC Atlanta lab was not an isolated incident by a rogue scientist, but rather one of multiple mishaps over the last several years that were violations, or apparent violations, of federal regulations for  handling deadly biological material.”

In another example when the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that research labs handling the most dangerous microbes or viruses at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) did not meet bio-safety standards, orders were issued for the research work in these labs to be stopped till some remedial action was taken, regardless of the adverse military implications as pleaded by the affected organization.

While all these accidents or leaks were obviously very dangerous, these were exposed by a transparent system which then also took at least some actions to reduce these risks. Will the much less transparent and  much more secretive system of China have room for such self-exposure and remedial action based on this?

Whether in China or the USA or in Europe or anywhere else proliferation of labs handling very dangerous biological materials is not good news for safety of people. Most countries have signed agreements for eliminating biological weapons, but these agreements leave open possibilities of research for defense against biological weapons. Often the same research done for defense also feeds into bio-weapon development. Also, civilian research results are useful for defense results. So one does not where to draw the line. All the available evidence draws to the conclusion that a lot of what is happening in high-level bio labs is of great concern to safety of people all over the world. Hence there is much greater need for transparency in all issues relating to the handling of dangerous infectious disease causing organisms with the attendant possibility of their accidental release, the aim of this transparency being to protect public safety at all levels generally and to more specifically ensure immediate remedial action at a very early stage of any accident or accidental leak.

In particular there is need to take very effective action to curb and control PPP research. If safety concerns demand, then the possibility of completely banning such research should be seriously considered as several aspects of its non-desirability, high risks and suspect benefits have been already highlighted. An opportunity for this had appeared after some serious bio-leaks and a moratorium on many such projects was announced in the USA but this moratorium was lifted after just 2 to 3 years. Now in new conditions a wider and longer-lasting moratorium should certainly be considered, along with other important measures to improve bio-safety in significant and durable ways.   


The writer is Convener, Campaign for Saving Earth Now and author of recent books Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.  

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