The Global BioLabs Report 2023 reveals an upward trend in the number of labs handling deadly viruses that are being planned or constructed in nations with weak biosecurity policies and monitoring.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been a strong dispute regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2. For instance, some specialists assert that the disease arose through the natural animal-to-human transmission of bats in a food market in Wuhan, China. Some researchers, including officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Energy Department, believe the epidemic started from a laboratory leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The Global BioLabs effort was initiated in 2021 by a group of scientists from George Mason University and King’s College London in response to concerns about biolab safety. This group collects and analyzes global data on maximum containment biolabs.
The Global BioLabs Report 2023, published on March 16th, expresses alarm over the worldwide expansion in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) and BSL3+ laboratories. In 2021, when the Global BioLabs program was announced, they identified 59 BSL4 laboratories in 23 countries that were either operational, under construction, or in the planning phases. By the beginning of 2023, there were 69 laboratories.
At BSL4 laboratories, infections such as Ebola and smallpox, which are highly contagious and fatal, are studied. In these laboratories, employees must adhere to stringent biohazard precautions. Since 2000, the number of BSL4 laboratories has almost doubled, according to the report. Around 75% of these laboratories are located in urban areas.
In addition, 18 new BSL4 laboratories are scheduled to open in Asian nations, including India and the Philippines. There are now twelve functioning BSL4 laboratories in North America, with three more in the development phases. Only 12 of the 27 nations with BSL4 laboratories receive top marks for their biosecurity policies and procedures. In addition, nine countries score average, and six countries score poorly for biosecurity governance.
BSL3+ and BSL3 enhanced laboratories concentrate mostly on animal pathogens such as H5N1 bird flu. When doing potentially dangerous research, they follow biosafety measures; nonetheless, the research does not require the same level of biosecurity as a BSL4 laboratory.
According to the paper, there are currently 57 BSL3+ laboratories, the majority of which are located in Europe. In North America, however, there are 18 BSL3+ laboratories in operation and one that is planned or under construction.
According to the paper, national biosafety guidance is weak, and there is no international guidance on what defines BSL3+. In addition, there is less evidence that BSL3+ security measures provide a sufficient level of additional protection for the riskier research undertaken in these laboratories.
The placement of these laboratories with high containment levels is also of concern to the Global BioLab team. For instance, the paper claims that “roughly 75% of BSL4 laboratories are located near metropolitan regions, which exacerbates the impact of any inadvertent leaks.”
In addition, the absence of robust laws and control in many nations that are currently planning to develop or are in the midst of constructing their first biolabs is concerning.
Authors of the paper noted, “More nations are constructing high-containment facilities, creating biotechnologies with dual applications, and performing dangerous pathogen research. Due to the risks posed by the inadvertent or intentional release of a disease capable of causing a pandemic, it is essential to increase international monitoring of high-consequence life sciences.”