Since the Covid-19 outbreak several criticisms have surfaced from the USA against China for violations of bio-lab safety which have been reciprocated, with sources in China directing similar criticism against the USA. However from the point of the safety of all people of the world, what is important is not the playing out of big power rivalry but ensuring safety of all critical bio-labs, whether these are located in China or the USA or any other country.
People all over the world have become aware that even a one-time viral leak of high toxicity from a high safety bio-lab can cause havoc all over the world, regardless of the country in which the leak takes place. This increasing consciousness should be used to push for much greater strictness and transparency of safety regulations to protect millions of people all over the world.
Several scientists working in this specialized area are increasingly concerned about growing safety issues and the main reason for this is the recent proliferation of highest-risk and safety category bio-labs in some countries. In China, for example, not only does a very high bio-safety level (BSL-4, which signifies the highest level of bio-containment) lab already exist in Wuhan but there are plans to build between five to seven BSL-4 level labs across China by 2025.
Some scientists in Western countries ask 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? The response of Chinese scientists is to point out that in the USA as well as in Europe there are about a dozen such labs in operation or construction so why should not China’s scientists aspire for equal levels of scientific advances?
They also point towards the recent 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. Their question is that if the Chinese lab was really a safety threat then why did the USA give a grant to this lab? The problem is that such high levels of bio-containment indicate that very dangerous pathogens are being handled in these labs and there are risks of leaks that could have very adverse and dangerous impacts.
In some labs, the supposedly civilian or medical research may be a cover for biological warfare research. The use of monkeys in such labs, more likely in China as there are 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 greater transparency and counter-checks within the system.
Opaque systems like the Chinese can be more dangerous unless special steps are taken soon to increase transparency. An NBC news report dated 17 July 2014 titled ‘CDC cracks down on labs after anthrax, bird flu scares’ stated that US government health officials 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 biosecurity 3 and 4 level labs until problems were addressed. Frieden said publicly 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 biosafety standards, orders were issued for research work in these labs to be stopped till remedial action was taken, regardless of the adverse military implications as pleaded by the affected organisation.
While all these accidents were very dangerous, they 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 selfexposure and remedial action? Whether in China or the USA or in Europe or anywhere else, proliferation of labs handling 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 research done for defense also feeds into bio-weapon development. Also, civilian research results are useful for defense results. So, one does not know where to draw the line.
All available evidence leads to the conclusion that a lot of what is happening in high-level bio labs is of great concern to safety of people. Hence there is much greater need for transparency in issues relating to the handling of infectious disease-causing organisms with the attendant possibility of their accidental release. The aim of this transparency is to protect public safety at all levels and to ensure immediate remedial action if an accident occurs.