We are unlikely to ever know the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus. We’ll have more or less likely scenarios, but hard evidence will be tough to come by given the potential for embarrassment or worse for Chinese authorities if they did the full monty for international inspectors. To be fair, no other government would allow that level of transparency either.
That failure must not stop science and health authorities from setting better and more stringent standards to reduce the likelihood of a laboratory release of a pathogen. It also demands a more serious conversation about the types of research done in such facilities. If the COVID-19 outbreak forces that discussion, then some good may come from this horrific crisis after all.
First things first: For all the headlines, there is no new evidence about what happened at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that substantiates claims that the coronavirus originated there. Questions persist and disputes over confidence levels within the intelligence community have been made public, but there is no new information about what happened in that lab to allow a definitive judgment.
Instead, news of differing assessments have demonstrated the all-too-human tendency to dismiss or downplay information that comes from sources we don’t like. U.S. President Donald Trump’s readiness to blame China for the virus undercut similar theorizing by other, less partisan or inflammatory, sources. Now, we are taking seriously both hypotheses — that the outbreak is either natural or a laboratory leak. Scientists warn, however, that we’re unlikely to resolve anything.
Renewed attention on the lab leak theory highlights the need to pay greater attention to the proliferation of biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories where some of the most dangerous research is conducted. A recent study identified “at least 59” such labs planned, under construction or in operation in 23 countries around the world. The qualifier — “at least 59” — is revealing: Even though these facilities house research on deadly pathogens, information, and thus scrutiny, is limited.
A BSL-4 facility has the highest level of safety and security precautions. (The former refers to measures that keep people from germs; the latter refers to measures that keep germs from people.) With those protections, researchers work on pathogens that can be fatal if transmitted. Some deadly items like influenza or botulinum are examined in BSL-3 labs where the level of protection is lower because there are vaccines if something goes wrong. There is no reliable count for the number of BSL-3 labs, but estimates run from more than 1,400 to well over 3,000.
Japan has, or will soon have, three such BSL-4 capable labs. The first was built in Musashimurayama, in western Tokyo, in 1981. While the lab has BSL-4 standards, it, like a second facility at the RIKEN Tsukuba Research Institute, only operated at the BSL-3 level because of opposition from residents. In 2015, the city and national governments agreed to allow the Musashimurayama lab to operate as a BSL-4 facility so researchers could work on more dangerous pathogens like Ebola, Marburg and Lassa fever — a preparation that some thought needed in light of the 2020 Olympics.
Construction of a third BSL-4 facility at Nagasaki University began in January 2019, and it’s expected to become operational in 2022 or 2023. It will house a dedicated area for novel coronavirus research.
A new study of maximum biological containment labs from King’s College London notes that there is no requirement for governments to report on the construction of these facilities. Moreover, no international entity is mandated with collecting such information or providing oversight at a global level.
More gobsmacking still, there is no single set of standards to guide construction, operation or procedures at those labs. There is a biorisk management system (ISO 35001), but no government has signed up for that voluntary reporting standard. The World Health Organization has biosecurity guidelines but they are only recommendations. That seems incredibly casual, especially when three-quarters of all BSL-4 labs are in urban centers.
There has been a construction boom. The King’s College study found that of the 42 labs where planning data was available, half were built in the last decade. China’s Guangdong province announced in May that it planned to build 25 to 30 BSL-3 labs and one BSL-4 lab in the next five years.
Working with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Nuclear Threat Initiative — which despite its name studies all weapons of mass destruction — created the Global Health Security Index (GHSI), a public benchmark of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries. According to the index, 27% of countries with BSL-4 labs have “high” levels of biosafety preparedness, 50% have “medium” levels, while 23% have “low” levels. On biosecurity, the numbers are 23% “high,” 36% “medium” and 41% are “low.”
No standards, a building boom and growing attention to biological threats. What could go wrong? Plenty, warns Filippa Lentzos, an author of the King’s College study. “The more work that is going on, the more accidents will happen,” she told the Financial Times.
The track record is already troubling, regardless of the COVID-19 origins. The latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in the U.S. in 2019, toxins and dangerous substances were lost 13 times and accidentally released 219 times, forcing over 1,000 people to undergo medical assessments; none contracted identified illnesses. An earlier study by the University of Minnesota found 395 reported “potential release events” of “select agents” in U.S. government laboratories between 2003 and 2009.
Genetic sequencing of the 1977 Russian flu strain, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, indicates that it leaked from a laboratory in the Soviet Union or China. A 1979 leak of anthrax from a Soviet facility caused 100 infections and 68 deaths. In China, an accident in a Beijing lab in 2004 resulted in nine people being infected with SARS and one death. Senior Chinese officials acknowledge their country’s “clear shortcomings” in its high-level biosafety labs in comparison with the U.S. and warned of insufficient operating funds.
Don’t panic. Most research is safe. Government studies have shown single-digit infections despite millions of hours of exposure.
Lab standards are only part of the problem. Growing numbers of scientists, policymakers and ethicists are asking if there is even a need for much of this research. There are perennial concerns about dual-use work — research that has both civilian and military applications. The King’s College study notes that only three of the 23 countries with BSL-4 labs have national policies that provide oversight of dual-use research. The GHSI only credits nine countries with having “dual use research and culture of responsible science.”
Scientists and strategists have long questioned the utility of biological weapons. They are difficult to use. That is part of the reason that the Biological Weapons Convention was agreed in 1972, the first treaty to ban an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. (Despite near universal adherence, the treaty lacks a compliance and verification mechanism, which could be used for BSL-4 labs. Blame Cold War politics — and then put Chinese reluctance to be transparent about Wuhan in perspective.)
Dual-use research is what Gregory Koblenz, co-author of the King’s College study, calls “a wicked problem.” It is “characterized by multiple overlapping subsets of problems and high levels of social complexity driven by the number and diversity of players involved in problem solving.”
Scientists wonder if studying and tinkering with germs will give us basic insight into life itself. Health officials anticipate findings that allow us to better handle future outbreaks. Military officials — who would never dream of employing a biological weapon — value research that might provide an antidote against unscrupulous sorts who might. Ethicists (and mathematicians) sometimes claim the risk of an accident is too high.
There is no right answer: only probabilities. As a starting point, I agree with Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former head of the United Kingdom’s WMD forces, who told the FT that “we need to see biological hazards as an existential threat to the 21st century in the same way that atomic science was to the 20th century.” That can be true regardless of what happened in Wuhan.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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