Wuhan coronavirus: China was warned in 2017 that a deadly virus could escape its level 4 biohazard lab

Wuhan coronavirus: China was warned in 2017 that a deadly virus could escape its level 4 biohazard lab
Staff in biohazard suits hold a metal stretcher by the in-patient department of Wuhan Medical Treatment Center in Wuhan, China. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

As the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak escalates, the only lab in China which is equipped to study and deal with such deadly and emerging infectious diseases is located in Wuhan -- the city where the virus first appeared. 

The lab -- the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory (Level 4) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences -- works with and studies the world’s most dangerous pathogens such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Ebola. However, scientists had warned in 2017 that a dangerous virus could escape the lab. According to Nature, some scientists outside China were worried about pathogens escaping, and the addition of a “biological dimension to geopolitical tensions” between China and other nations. 

“Tim Trevan, the founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, says that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and he questions how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy,” said the 2017 Nature article.

“Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important,” he had told Nature.

In fact, the SARS virus had escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, according to Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. 

Currently, however, it is not suspected that the Wuhan lab has any connection with the new coronavirus outbreak. 

Travelers sit with their luggage outside the closed Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. (Chinatopix via AP)

Why did China build the lab?

After the 2003 SARS epidemic, the government of China initiated a plan to construct a national high-level biosafety laboratory system to prepare for and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks. 

This led to the establishment of the Biosafety Level 4 laboratory -- the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory (Level 4). The move was part of a plan to build between five and seven biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs across the Chinese mainland by 2025.

Laboratories are classified into biocontainment levels 1 to 4, depending on the pathogenicity of microbes investigated. Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories investigate the most dangerous pathogens and have maximum biocontainment levels.

Over the last two decades, numerous infectious diseases, including Ebola, Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever, Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever, Lassa Fever, SARS, Avian Influenza A (H5N1), Rift Valley Fever, and Nipah and Hendra viral diseases, have emerged and re-emerged, posing serious threats to public health. 

“To prepare for biological threats, scientists must research dangerous pathogens to develop effective methods to prevent, diagnose, and treat the diseases caused by them,” says the CDC report by Dr. Han Xia, an associate professor at Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“One of the goals (after the 2003 SARS epidemic) was to build a BSL-4 laboratory that meets the national and international standards for diagnosing, researching, and developing antiviral drugs and vaccines while additionally preserving highly pathogenic BSL-4 agents for future scientific research,” the report says. 

Within the framework of the Sino-French Cooperation Agreement on Emerging Infectious Diseases Prevention and Control, signed in October 2004, China constructed its first BSL-4 laboratory in 2015 in Wuhan. 

“During construction, prospective BSL-4 laboratory staff members visited France, the US, or Australia for BSL-4 training and capacity building. After 2 years of testing and commissioning, Wuhan BSL-4 laboratory passed a series of assessments, and the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment certified it as meeting the highest biosafety standard in January 2017. In August 2017, the National Health Commission of China approved research activities involving Ebola, Nipah, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever viruses at the Wuhan BSL-4 laboratory,” says the report. 

According to experts, the safety and function of a BSL-4 laboratory rely not only on the containment facility and biosafety management systems but also on very qualified and experienced staff. 

“Many recorded laboratory accidents are related to personnel error. Qualified staff ensures the efficacy and safety of a high-containment laboratory,” says the report. 

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