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Sloppy standards at Chinese labs pose risk of deadly pathogen leaks

Inadequate, unsafe practices and equipment, and sub-optimal standards, characterise a number of Chinese research institutions, with scant regard, in many cases, paid to bio-safety practices or adherence to what should be strict regulations. For these reasons, note experts, the future likelihood of deadly pathogens being leaked is not impossible.

In the summer of 2019, a mysterious accident occurred inside a government-run biomedical complex in China, a facility that handles a pathogen notorious for its ability to pass easily from animals to humans, The Washington Post reports.

There were no alarms or flashing lights to alert workers to the defect in a sanitation system that was supposed to kill germs in the vaccine plant’s waste. When the system failed in late July that year, millions of airborne microbes began seeping invisibly from exhaust vents and drifting into nearby neighbourhoods.

Nearly a month passed before the problem was discovered and fixed, and four months before the public was informed. By then, at least 10 000 people had been exposed, with hundreds developing symptomatic illnesses, scientific studies later concluded.

The events occurred not in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus pandemic began, but in another Chinese city, Lanzhou, 1 200km to the northwest. The leaking pathogens were bacteria that cause brucellosis, a common livestock disease that can lead to chronic illness or even death in humans if not treated.

As the pandemic enters its fourth year, new details about the little-known Lanzhou incident offer a revealing glimpse into a much larger, and largely hidden, struggle with biosafety across China in late 2019, at the precise moment when both the brucellosis incident and the coronavirus outbreak were coming to light.

Multiple probes into both events by US and international scientists and lawmakers are spotlighting what experts describe as China’s vulnerability to serious lab accidents, exposing problems that allowed deadly pathogens to escape in the past and could well do so again, potentially triggering another pandemic.

Beijing has embarked on a major expansion of the country’s biotechnology sector, pouring billions of dollars into constructing dozens of laboratories and encouraging cutting-edge – and sometimes controversial – research in fields including genetic engineering, and experimental vaccines and therapeutics.

The expansion is part of a government-mandated effort to rival or surpass the scientific capabilities of the United States and other Western powers. Yet, safety practices in China’s new labs have failed to keep pace, a Washington Post examination has found.

Lab accidents happen everywhere, including in the US, where illnesses and deaths caused by accidental infections have occurred, especially before the adoption of modern safety standards in the 1970s. But Chinese Government reports, bolstered by interviews and statements by Western and Chinese officials and scientists who visited the facilities as recently as 2020, describe ongoing equipment problems and inadequate safety training that in some cases resulted in lab animals being illegally sold after being used in experiments, and contaminated lab waste being flushed into sewers.

The problems are exacerbated, experts say, by a secretive, top-down bureaucracy that sets demanding goals while reflexively covering up accidents and discouraging any public acknowledgment of shortcomings.

China adopted legislation to improve biosafety around the time of the Covid-19 outbreak caused by the novel coronavirus. But the lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess how the new standards are being implemented. The country’s recent history, which includes multiple documented instances of pathogen “leaks” or lab-related infections as well as a rushed entry into high-risk research with lethal viruses, provides ample reasons for concern, Western officials and experts say.

Biosecurity expert Robert Hawley, who for years oversaw safety programmes at the US Army’s maximum-containment lab at Fort Detrick, expressed dismay over “imprudent” lab practices he observed in inspection reports obtained by a congressional oversight committee.

“It is very, very apparent that their biological safety training is minimal,” Hawley said.

Multiple emailed requests seeking comment from the Chinese Embassy in Washington and China’s National Health Commission did not receive a response. Beijing has accused US officials of scapegoating China over the coronavirus pandemic, while also rejecting criticism of China’s record on transparency and lab safety as hypocritical.

American agencies and institutions sometimes restrict access to scientific data, especially for defence-related research. In a 2020 State Department email obtained by the non-profit organisation US Right to Know, a senior Trump administration official appeared to acknowledge that some criticism of China “called out actions that we ourselves are doing”.

Whether lab safety was a factor in the coronavirus outbreak remains unclear. The World Health Organisation and the US intelligence community both continue to point to a possible lab accident as one of the two ways that the pandemic may have started.

Chinese officials have rejected the lab-leak hypothesis while also stymying independent investigations into the pandemic’s origins. For three years, Beijing has blocked access to information about the testing of humans and animals in the early weeks of the outbreak, and it also has refused to release a full inventory of the virus strains being studied at its top civilian and military virology labs.

What is clearer now is that conditions existed, and perhaps still exist, that raised the odds of an accidental outbreak. An expert group headed by Philip Zelikow, who was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, is expected to highlight China’s struggles with biosafety as part of a wide-ranging report probing the conditions that set the stage for the global pandemic.

Zelikow said the problem of lagging standards and unsafe working conditions for Chinese scientists was exacerbated by “an environment of extraordinary political and economic pressure”.

“Biosafety culture and practices struggled to keep up with racing biotech skills and ambitions,” he said.

Shiny new labs

Twenty years ago, a different coronavirus ignited China’s ambition to become a biomedical superpower. The pathogen that causes the disease known as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, appeared out of nowhere in 2002, jumping from bats to a mongoose-like mammal known as the Asian palm civet and then to humans in China’s Guangdong province.

Eventually, SARS infected more than 8 000 people worldwide, most of them in China and Hong Kong. About 800 died.

To China’s leaders, SARS exposed a vulnerability to zoonotic diseases. In the wake of SARS, Beijing vowed to rapidly modernise the country’s biomedical institutions, seen as lagging because of what was viewed as a Western “stranglehold” on biotechnology.

Those promises were mostly kept, with technical and financial assistance from Western countries. The 15 years after the SARS eruption witnessed an unprecedented surge in Chinese partnerships with US and European scientific institutions as Beijing sought to tackle the country’s serious health-care challenges while also narrowing the technology gap.

One of the most prominent collaborations was a US-Chinese virology research project investigating coronaviruses, backed by millions of dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health and involving China’s top scientist in the field, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Shi Zhengli, and counterparts from the New York-based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance.

Another collaboration was a Chinese-French agreement to construct China’s first ultra-secure laboratory, known as a Biosafety Level 4, or BSL-4 facility, built to handle the deadliest known pathogens. That lab, operated by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, became fully operational in 2018.

Since then, Beijing has quickly built at least two more BSL-4 labs, in the cities of Harbin and Kunming, and announced plans to construct dozens of BSL-3s (labs handling second-tier threats like the anthrax bacteria) to ensure all of China’s 34 provinces and autonomous regions have at least one for a total of at least 120, according to independent analysts.

Biosafety Level (BSL) 1 and 2 labs work with microbes that may pose minimal or moderate hazards and feature standard research equipment and infrastructure like ventilated biosafety cabinets, autoclaves and sinks.

BSL-3 labs study infectious pathogens that may be transmitted through the air and could cause lethal infections if exposed. Additional requirements are sealed walls, two self-closing doors, and directional airflow and filtered ventilation. These labs also must have equipment that can decontaminate wastewater.

BSL-4 labs provide the highest level of safety and deal with the most dangerous and infectious pathogens. These require filters for both supply and exhaust air, and class III biosafety cabinets. A chemical and personal shower out are required to ensure full decontamination before leaving.

Yet, for at least some labs, speed and ambition occasionally meant cutting corners.

Chinese officials said very little publicly about a serious incident involving the SARS virus that occurred in 2004, when two lab workers in Beijing separately contracted the disease and spread the illness to at least seven outsiders, one of whom died, WHO officials said.

Meanwhile, as new labs were being built, the safety programmes and rigorous training that developed over years in the top Western labs were slow to take hold, and in some cases were simply ignored, according to inspection documents and reports by Chinese scientists who visited or worked in the facilities.

The Washington Post reviewed official statements and reports, collected and translated by congressional researchers, State Department officials and independent investigators, that point to systemic failures in implementing safety standards necessary to prevent a spillover of dangerous bacteria and viruses. The deficiencies were being documented at a time of intense activity and rapid change.

Across China, a sweeping, years-long effort was under way to collect and analyse thousands of previously unknown viruses harvested from wild animals across Asia. At the same time, Chinese labs were plunging headlong into the emerging field of synthetic biology, embracing new and controversial bioengineering techniques in which scientists tweak the genetic structure of viruses in an attempt to anticipate future evolutionary changes that could make the pathogens more dangerous to humans.

Yet, as Western countries discovered painfully years ago, running a successful laboratory requires more than just an ability to conduct experiments.

“It’s not just about the guys in white coats. It’s also about the people running the systems,” said Hawley, the former Army biosafety chief. “You can’t cut corners, or glean the knowledge that’s required in a two-week course and then expect that people will be able to fly solo. It doesn’t happen that way.”

Flushed into sewers

In January 2020, as the first Covid-19 cases were being investigated, Chinese news media reported a rare scandal involving one of the country’s laboratories. A professor at an agricultural university was arrested and charged with illegally selling animals used in the lab’s research programme.

Chinese authorities eventually sentenced him to 12 years in prison, apparently intended as a warning to others. The problem of off-the-books selling of lab animals was deemed to be of sufficient magnitude that China’s government was compelled to adopt a law that year expressly forbidding labs to sell “animals used in experimentation”.

Whether anyone became sick from exposure to laboratory animals is unknown. But the report amounted to an official acknowledgment of safety problems that are generally harder to spot and, in China’s case, only rarely mentioned in public.

Lab inspection reports and other documents obtained by congressional investigators and independent researchers show Chinese labs struggling to implement safety standards, including at some of the newest and most prestigious institutions, like the Wuhan BSL-4 lab. The conclusions are echoed in confidential State Department cables drafted in 2018 after US scientists visited the Wuhan facility and met Chinese counterparts there. One cable noted a “serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”.

Although the Wuhan BSL-4 lab was built according to French designs, Chinese officials gradually shut out their French partners and replaced some of the costlier safety features with locally made equivalents that had never been put to the test under BSL-4 conditions, show documents reviewed by The Post.

For example, less than 18 months after the facility’s official opening, lab managers issued short-notice bids and patent applications to fix apparent problems with doors seals, the air filtration system and monitoring devices that were supposed to alert scientists to possible leaks.

The records were obtained as part of an ongoing oversight investigation by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions and independent analysts with DRASTIC, a loose confederation of data analysts and amateur sleuths who mine open-source Chinese documents for information about Covid-19. There is no known evidence suggesting the BSL-4 facility was involved in research on the virus that causes Covid-19; that research was taking place elsewhere at the Wuhan Institute.

Other documents describe a litany of shortcomings at multiple facilities, including shortages of trained workers, inadequate or missing equipment, bad waste-management practices and sloppy conditions.

At the Wuhan Institute of Virology, social media postings in late 2019 confirm previously reported safety lapses among lab workers conducting field research on unknown coronaviruses. Chinese scientists collected 20 000 virus samples from bats and other animals by 2019 and conducted genetic tests for hundreds of them, documents show.

Social media postings show scientists working in caves filled with thousands of disease-carrying bats and sometimes handling the creatures and their excrement without gloves or other protective gear.

Back in the laboratory, unidentified viruses were grown in petri dishes and tested under BSL-2 conditions, rather than in more-restrictive BSL-3 conditions, as would be customary in the US and Western Europe, say American scientists who collaborated with the institute’s researchers.

In a description of the research prepared for the Senate Health Committee, congressional researchers said studies on previously unknown coronaviruses continued under “inappropriately low biosafety levels” until after the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and that the work included creating genetically modified “chimeras” by splicing genetic material from one virus on to another for lab tests. Wuhan Institute officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The problems were sufficiently worrisome that a few senior Chinese officials and scientists felt compelled to speak out. In a rare public acknowledgment, Gao Hucheng, a senior member of the government’s National People’s Congress, warned in a 2019 report to fellow legislators that the “biosecurity situation in our country is grim”.

He specifically cited the potentially grave consequences stemming from “laboratories that leak.”

 

The Washington Post article – China’s struggles with lab safety carry danger of another epidemic (Restricted access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Wuhan virus escape probably accidental – US agencies

 

COVID-19 Wuhan lab escape theory gets a second look

 

China tries to obscure Wuhan origin of COVID-19 pandemic

 

 

 

 

 

 

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