Experts have raised biosecurity concerns given the rapid increase in the number of laboratories handling dangerous pathogens.
As debate rages on about the possible origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of researchers has released the Global BioLabs Report 2023. The report documents that the number of laboratories handling dangerous pathogens has risen to more than 100 worldwide.
It was also noted that the number of BSL4 labs either operational, under construction or planned has increased by 10 in two years. The number is now 69 in 27 countries, compared to 59 in 23 countries in 2021.
BSL4 labs are designed and built to work safely with the most dangerous bacteria and viruses that can cause serious illness and for which there is no treatment or vaccine. These include, for example, the pathogens of Ebola, Marburg fever or hemorrhagic fever.
About three-quarters of BSL4 labs are located in urbanized areas, increasing the risk if a pathogen manages to escape.
“The main trend is that the number of laboratories handling dangerous pathogens is increasing rapidly worldwide, but the boom has not been accompanied by sufficient oversight and this raises biosafety and biosafety concerns,” Filippa Lentzos, an author of the Report at King’s College London, narrated news week.
The number of BSL4 labs around the world has grown steadily since the 2001 anthrax mail attack in the US and the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia. These events raised concern about the threat posed by naturally occurring and man-made biological threats.
The spread of COVID-19 has fueled another boom, with nine countries announcing plans to build 12 new BSL4 labs since the pandemic began. Most of the new labs will be built in Asia – China, India, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Japan. An African nation, Côte d’Ivoire, has also announced that it will build one.
But Lentzos said many of the nations building the labs are performing poorly on bio-risk management.
“The Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire and Saudi Arabia are all building BSL4 labs for the first time, but all perform poorly in biorisk management oversight,” she said. “However, with the labs not yet complete and operational, there is still time to strengthen national laws and regulations on biosafety, biosafety and dual-use research to align with international standards.”
The largest concentration of BSL4 laboratories remains in Europe, where 24 are operational, with one under construction in the UK and another planned in Spain. North America has 15, with one under construction in the United States and two planned in Canada and the United States
The report also highlights the rise of so-called BSL3+ labs, of which there are 57 worldwide, mostly in Europe and North America.
According to the report, these laboratories “take additional physical and/or operational biosafety and biosecurity precautions when conducting particularly risky research, but when the risks do not necessarily warrant BSL4 precautions.”
“There is very limited national biosafety guidance and no international guidance on what constitutes BSL3+, and little to no research showing that these improvements actually provide a reasonable level of added safety for the riskier research being conducted in these labs.” , says the report.
The report’s authors call for urgent action to address the risks posed by BSL4 and BSL3+ laboratories.
“We must ensure that appropriate international standards are in place and that they are implemented,” Lentzos said. “And there are risks in building these labs, so as a global community we need to discuss where are the best places to build and how many BSL4 labs is enough.”
The report provides a number of specific recommendations that laboratories, governments, NGOs and international organizations should adopt to strengthen biosecurity practices.
For example, the report recommends that states should include voluntary global standards for biohazard management in laws and guidelines. It also states that states that do not yet have a national biosecurity association should encourage and support the establishment of one by the relevant experts.
Another recommendation is that states should provide full, regular and transparent reporting on their biolab activities. The report also includes a number of steps the World Health Organization can take, including developing criteria and guidelines for BSL3+ laboratories.
“We urgently need coordinated international action to address rising biohazards,” Gregory Koblentz, an author of the report from the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said in a statement.