Nestling in the hilly outskirts of the city of Wuhan is the Institute of Virology, one of the 60 or so labs around the world that handle the most lethal pathogens known to man. Other labs can be found in 23 different countries with seven of them being located in the UK.

The best known of these is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, run by the Ministry of Defence at its base in Porton Down, Wiltshire — where two labs research the threat from biological weapons.

The National Institute of Medical Research also has a high-security laboratory that is located in Camden. It studies influenza viruses which can cause pandemics.

The laboratories involved in researching harmful pathogens have graded safety standards, with the strength of the grading determined by the danger from the organisms that the staff handle [File photo]

Research laboratories that deal with harmful pathogens must use safety standards. Grades are determined by how dangerous the organisms can be. [File photo]

The top labs are Biosafety Level 4 or BSL4. They house deadly pathogens such as Ebola, Covid-19 and Marburg (fatal in approximately 88 percent of cases). There is often no treatment or vaccine for these organisms. That’s exactly why they are being studied.

Nearly half of all BSL4 laboratories are run by the government, while most others are managed either through universities or other biodefence organizations.

However, experts have become more worried about managing the hazardous organisms found in such labs. They warn that there is no way to protect the world from escaped viruses.

Indeed, as Good Health has discovered, even at UK labs handling less risky pathogens, over the past three years alone there have been 18 ‘low-level’ errors.

These labs are not considered safe. 

Risks are higher in urban areas 

Laboratory personnel who are involved in the research of harmful pathogens use safety standards to grade their work. The strength of the grading is determined by how dangerous the organisms can be.

For example, a BSL1 lab needs only basic levels of control as it’s likely to be handling largely non-hazardous agents, including yeasts, or bacteria such as E.coli (which can cause food poisoning). This level of biosecurity includes daily cleaning and handwashing, as well as wearing protective eyewear.

BSL2 or BSL3 laboratory work with other contagious diseases like tuberculosis. They have added safety measures, including the use of biosafety cabinets, where viruses are handled only in sealed units using ‘built-in’ gloves.

BSL4 is considered the most prestigious grade. This lab handles the most deadly pathogens. If they escape through air or faulty ventilation systems or on clothes, hair, equipment or by infecting lab workers, it could have devastating consequences.

These labs should have their own air supply. Staff must be provided with oxygen and must use biosafety cabinets. In addition, a BSL4 lab should be located in a separate building — in a zone with restricted access — from other research departments.

What could go wrong with such strict security and 60+ BSL4 laboratories around the world?

The best known of these is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, run by the Ministry of Defence at its base in Porton Down, Wiltshire — where two labs research the threat from biological weapons

The best known of these is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, run by the Ministry of Defence at its base in Porton Down, Wiltshire — where two labs research the threat from biological weapons

The Global Health Security Index (a project that monitors safety standards in dangerous pathogen-handling centres) reported in 2020 that around one fourth of BSL4 centers scored highly in safety measures.

This index evaluates the quality of legislation in these countries to ensure that they have the right regulations and laws to minimize the risk, provide the highest possible training and support staff who work with lethal agents. But it has no powers to punish labs that don’t comply.

Another study suggests that some laboratories set up to handle the high volume of Covid-19 tests may pose major biosecurity threats. In a study published in Environment International, October 2020, standards were examined at the 90 BSL2 or BSL3 laboratories in China that are authorized to test Covid-19 samples. Only four of them met all safety recommendations.

Researchers stated that the greatest danger was the absence of automatic doors to reduce the chance of viruses particles fleeing.

‘There is plenty of room for improvement,’ says Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London. ‘More countries are expected to seek BSL4 labs for research in the wake of the pandemic. But we need to keep in mind that such research can carry risks of its own.’

She points out that 75 per cent of high-security labs around the world are sited in urban areas — increasing the likelihood of rapid transmission in the event of a virus escaping. 

There are always mishaps 

In the UK, for example, the National Institute for Medical Research — which handles, among other things, highly infectious strains of flu — was based in Mill Hill, North London, for more than 80 years before it relocated to Camden in 2016.

‘Most of these labs are in built-up areas,’ says Filippa Lentzos. ‘Working with high-risk pathogens carries substantial safety risks to workers, but also to wider society. Extremely high levels of safety and security must be applied.’

She and other biosecurity researchers submitted written evidence in October 2020 to a UK Joint Committee on National Security Strategy’s inquiry into lab safety. In it they warned: ‘These labs carry out some of the most dangerous manipulations of pathogens with pandemic potential.

‘While they are built to protect researchers, the public and the environment from harm, lab design cannot overcome human error or poor training. Accidents happen all the time.’

Infected people were 80 in England between 1963-1978, just before BSL4 Guidelines. One of the two smallpox labs released the virus to infect three others.

Birmingham Medical School’s medical photographer died due to respiratory problems in the laboratory below.

Internationally, there have been at least six documented escapes of SARS1 — the virus which threatened to spread round the world in the early 2000s — from virology labs in China, Singapore and Taiwan.

‘In the Singapore case, it was found that the virus probably became attached to a worker’s hair follicle,’ says Angus Dalgleish, a professor of oncology at St George’s Hospital Medical School in London, who co-authored a controversial paper alleging the Covid virus was man-made.

‘That was in spite of the protective gear they were wearing. That’s how dangerous this work is.’

Scientists creating super-infectious virus are another concern. This controversial technique, known as gain-of function research, involves manipulating viruses genetically to make them more infectious.

It is important that scientists learn more about viruses and how they mutate so they can develop vaccines and drugs to fight them.

It’s already known that scientists at Wuhan had carried out gain-of-function research on coronaviruses by grafting proteins from eight types of naturally occurring coronaviruses onto a ninth to see if it would infect human cells. The Chinese authorities deny that this is the cause of the pandemic.

Professor Dalgleish says: ‘Why would anyone be doing this type of research? This should be banned. It was banned in the U.S. under President Obama but reinstated under President Trump.’

Filippa Lentzos states that research grants in the UK are closely scrutinized to ensure gain-of function research is scientifically sound and appropriate.

For example, in 2020, a worker at Porton Down was bitten by a ferret infected with coronavirus. In 2013, tears were found in protective suits used at a facility handling animals infected with Ebola, also at Porton Down. A stock image is used above

Porton Down workers were bitten in 2020 by a coronavirus-infected ferret. The protective clothing used to handle Ebola-infected animals at Porton Down in 2013 contained tears. Above is a stock photo

But she warns: ‘The vast majority of other countries with maximum containment labs do not regulate this kind of research.

‘This is particularly concerning as gain-of-function research with coronaviruses is likely to increase

as scientists seek to better understand them.’

Global Health Security Index ranked the UK as one the best countries for biosecurity.

Despite major viral leaks being avoided, some slip-ups still exist.

Porton Down workers were bitten in 2020 by a coronavirus-infected ferret. The protective clothing used to handle Ebola-infected animals at Porton Down in 2013 contained tears.

But there are many more ‘low-level’ errors. Good Health’s analysis of data from the Health and Safety Executive on incidents at BSL1 and BSL2 laboratories shows that 18 of these errors were investigated over the three-year period.

Numerous cases were related to NHS trusts that failed to provide protection equipment or allowed lab staff to openly test blood samples, as opposed to in biosafety cupboards.

According to separate data released by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency under a Freedom of Information Request (MHRA), there have been over 20 safety incidents within the past decade at a central BSL4 centre in Potters Bar called the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control.

In 2010, a lab handling H5N1 — a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu — was shut down when cabinets housing the organism suffered a fault that threatened to release virus particles into the air.

However, the MHRA maintains that the public was not at risk. And Heather Sheeley, a biorisk consultant who spent ten years working at Public Health England, told Good Health: ‘The UK has had strong legislation to protect against exposure to pathogens handled in the laboratory since 1970s. And the HSE is vigilant in its review of measures.’

Filippa Lentzos calls on countries with high-security laboratories to join ISO35001. This international standard for lab management was created to minimize the risk to the general public.

She says that to date, there has been no implementation of it in a BSL4 laboratory.

Heather Sheeley insists the UK’s safety standards already exceed those in ISO35001. But in a recent report, Filippa Lentzos said it ‘would be a big step towards reducing the risk of future accidents’.

‘Covid has been a wake-up call,’ she says. ‘Even if you don’t believe the pandemic was the result of a gain-of-function experiment gone wrong, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be the source of the next one.’