Why Scientists Worried About Leaks at Biolabs
WASHINGTON, United States – The theory that Covid-19 could be the result of scientific experiments has thrown the spotlight on the work of the world’s safest biolabs.
While the evidence linking SARS-CoV-2 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China is strictly circumstantial, a number of experts want tighter controls on these facilities, fearing accidental leaks could trigger the next pandemic. .
Here’s what you need to know.
59 best establishments
The Wuhan lab is in the most secure class, commonly known as biosafety level 4, or BSL4.
These are designed to work safely with the most dangerous bacteria and viruses that can cause serious illnesses for which there is no known cure or vaccine.
“There are HVAC filtration systems, so the virus cannot escape through the exhaust gases; any wastewater that leaves the facility is treated with chemicals or at high temperatures to make sure that there is nothing alive, “Gregory Koblentz, director of the graduate biodefense program at George Mason University, told AFP.
The researchers themselves are highly trained and wear protective suits against hazardous materials.
There are 59 such installations around the world, according to a report co-authored by Koblentz and published this week.
“There are no binding international standards for safe, secure and responsible work on pathogens,” says the report, titled Mapping of Maximum Biological Containment Laboratories Globally.
Accidents can happen, sometimes in first level facilities, and much more frequently in lower level laboratories, of which there are thousands.
The human H1N1 virus – the same flu that caused the 1918 pandemic – fled in 1977 to the Soviet Union and China and has spread around the world.
In 2001, a mentally disturbed employee of a US biolab sent anthrax spores across the country, killing five people.
Two Chinese researchers exposed to SARS in 2004 spread the disease to others, killing one.
In 2014, a handful of smallpox vials were discovered during a move from the Food and Drug Administration office.
Lynn Klotz, senior researcher at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, has sounded the alarm bells for many years about the threats to public safety posed by these facilities.
“Human errors constitute more than 70% of errors in laboratories,” he told AFP, adding that American researchers must rely on data from access to information requests to take knowledge of these incidents.
The “ gain of office ” controversy
There is a disagreement between the U.S. government, which funded the bat coronavirus research in Wuhan, and some independent scientists over whether this work was controversial ‘gain-of-function’ research (GOF ).
GOF research involves modifying pathogens to make them more transmissible, deadlier, or better able to evade treatments and vaccines – all to learn how to fight them better.
This area has long been controversial. The debate came to a head when two research teams in 2011 showed that they could make avian influenza transmissible between mammals.
Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told AFP he feared “this would create a strain of virus which, if it infected, a lab worker could not just kill that lab worker … but also cause a pandemic “.
“Research is not necessary and does not contribute to the development of drugs or vaccines,” added molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University, one of the strongest opponents of this type of research.
In 2014, the U.S. government announced a break in federal funding for this work, which in 2017 gave way to a framework that would review each request on a case-by-case basis.
But the process has been criticized for its lack of transparency and credibility.
As recently as last year, a nonprofit organization received funding from the United States for research aimed at “predicting the spillover potential” of the bat coronavirus on humans in Wuhan.
Asked by Congress this week, Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health denied that this amounted to a gain in functional research, but Ebright clearly said it did.
The way to go
None of this means that Covid-19 has definitely leaked from a lab – in fact, there is no strong scientific evidence to support a natural origin or lab accident scenario, said Ebright.
But there are certain lines of circumstantial evidence in favor of the latter. For example, Wuhan is about 1,000 miles north of the bat caves that harbor the ancestor virus, well beyond the flight range of animals.
Scientists in Wuhan were, however, known to make routine trips to these caves to collect samples.
Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, said there was no sign of research on risky pathogens disappearing as a result of the pandemic – in fact, “it may be widespread. “.
Last year, Chan published research showing that unlike SARS, SARS-CoV-2 was not evolving rapidly when first detected in humans – further circumstantial evidence that could point to a laboratory origin.
Chan sees herself as a “gatekeeper” on competing hypotheses, but does not favor a ban on risky research, fearing that it will then go underground.
One solution “could be as simple as moving these research institutes to extremely remote areas … where you have to quarantine for two weeks before re-entering human society,” she said.