Sunday, 16 June, 2024
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More than 100 labs studying deadly viruses, mapping project finds

The growing number of high-containment labs studying deadly animal and human viruses raises the risks of an accidental release or misuse of germs, like the Ebola and Nipah viruses, experts have warned.

“The more labs and people working with dangerous pathogens, the higher the risks,” says biosecurity expert Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London, who started the Global BioLabs mapping project two years ago with Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University.

Worldwide, there are 51 biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) labs in 27 countries, according to the Global BioLabs Report 2023, which was released last week. These labs have the highest level of safety and security standards, where workers often wear protective suits, reports the journal Science.

Fifty-one is roughly double the number that existed about a decade ago. Many BSL-4 labs were built after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States to develop biodefence countermeasures and in response to the 2003 multi-country outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Three-quarters of the BSL-4 labs are in urban areas, creating risk for more people if a pathogen escaped.

Eighteen BSL-4 labs are due to open in the next few years, most in Asian countries such as India and the Philippines, that want to bolster responses to local threats and future pandemics. The report also documented 57 operating BSL-3 “plus” labs, mainly in Europe, which are BSL-3 labs with extra safety and security measures.

Researchers often use these labs to study animal pathogens such as highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza.

Concerns about an increasing number of BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs aren’t new, but they have grown since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began in 2019 – and the hypothesis that the virus came from a lab.

Many countries, particularly those building their first BSL-4 labs, lack strong policies and methods to monitor such labs, the report says.

Only Canada has legislation overseeing all experiments, even those with no government funding, that are considered “dual use” because the results could potentially be used to cause harm.

The report urges the World Health Organisation to strengthen guidance and individual countries to agree to audits by outside experts to ensure that their labs meet international standards.



Science article – Growing number of high-security pathogen labs around world raises concerns (Open access)


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