It’s boom time for biosafety labs: Who is keeping tabs?

The Global BioLabs Report 2023 released on 16 March 2023 describes a “global boom” in the construction of special laboratories that are designed to study highly contagious or economically devastating disease organisms.

However, despite the heightened concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic – including the US Federal Bureau of Investigations’ claim, reiterated on 1 March, that the pandemic “most likely” originated from a lab incident in Wuhan, China – this report notes how biorisk management policies have not improved in most countries.

While some of these labs are governmental (usually agricultural), a substantial number are situated at universities, making biorisk management an important concern for those higher education institutions.

The labs have the biosafety levels of BSL3+ or BSL4 and are designed to keep viruses, bacteria and parasites from escaping.

However, the rapid increase in secure biosafety labs “presents significant new challenges to preventing the accidental, reckless or malicious misuse of biology”, the Global BioLabs report said.

Biosafety and biosecurity initiative

The Global BioLabs initiative is a relatively new effort, begun in May 2021 to provide an overview of the biosafety and biosecurity concerns in this rapidly growing field of research. It aims to offer an authoritative source on maximum containment laboratories and biorisk management policies around the world.

The Global BioLabs team consists of three professors or research associates at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, and four colleagues in the biodefence programme at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in the United States.

The 30-page report presents: data on BSL3+ laboratories; assessments of the strength of biorisk management governance in each of the countries that has, or plans to have, a BSL4 lab; indicators on the implementation effectiveness of biorisk management policies; profiles of international networks of countries and labs active in biorisk management; and new educational materials on biosafety, biosecurity, and dual-use oversight.

It also offers a set of policy recommendations to strengthen biorisk management at the lab, on a national and international level.

Protection measures

While “biosafety” suggests special protection measures, many high school and university biology labs where students study bacteria already are at biosafety levels 1 or 2 (BSL1 or BSL2).

That means that not everyone can walk through, handwashing is required, you are careful with scalpels and other blades, you wear gloves, eye protection and a lab jacket, and an autoclave (pressure cooker) is used to kill pathogens.

BSL2 adds a requirement for physical containment of the disease agents.

BSL3 adds requirements for airtight disinfecting, double-door access, personal showering afterwards, high-efficiency (HEPA) filters, controlled access, air-purifying respirators, etc. Additional precautions may be added to further isolate dangerous agents, becoming BSL3+. These BSL3+ labs are mostly at universities or public health facilities, and the majority are in Europe in urban areas.

By BSL4, the laboratory is totally airtight, access is tightly controlled, and researchers wear full-body, positive pressure HAZMAT (hazardous materials) outfits with self-contained air tanks, or the research organisms are securely isolated by glove boxes.

Global BioLabs keep track of the increasing numbers of BSL4 labs around the world and finds that “over 60% of BSL4 labs are government-run public health institutions, primarily focused on human health rather than biodefence”. More than half that work with animal infections are in the US.

There are currently 51 BLS4 labs in operation across 27 countries. Three more are under construction and 15 are being planned. Europe, with 20, holds the largest concentration of BLS4 labs while North America has 15.

The one new US lab under construction is the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas and adjacent to Kansas State University. NBAF replaces the 68-year-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center where the US has conducted foreign animal disease research.

Lab growth after anthrax attacks and SARS

Growth of BLS4 labs began after the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that occurred about the same time as the 9/11 attacks.

While not discussed in this report, the PBS (US public broadcaster) programme “NOVA: Bioterror” originally broadcast on 13 November 2001 describes the earlier US involvement in producing an airborne strain of anthrax as well as many other biowarfare agents at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

This programme likewise describes how the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) bans biological weapons “by prohibiting their development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use”. The BWC entered into force on 26 March 1975. Only a few countries have failed to ratify the treaty.

A second surge in building more BLS4 labs occurred after the 2003 outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), although that outbreak was successfully overcome by lockdown and isolation.

Public health focus

The main focus of the Global BioLabs Report is public health, not biodefence. While public media usually focus on the one-fifth of large labs, most labs are small, about the size of a single tennis court. Most BLS3+ and BLS4 labs are in urban areas, and their small size means that they may not be recognised by the local community.

The number of BLS4 labs will double in the near future. Most are in Asian countries including India and the Philippines where tropical conditions and large populations pose a greater threat of future pandemics.

This rapid increase in secure biosafety labs “presents significant new challenges to preventing the accidental, reckless, or malicious misuse of biology”.

Australia, Canada top on safety

The report uses a biosafety governance scoring system with 12 metrics to rate governments on their effective management of current labs, with Australia and Canada ranked at the top, and India, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Saudi Arabia at the bottom.

Roughly similar results are presented for biosecurity.

However, when it comes to addressing the problem of monitoring for “dual use” research that can divert research to unintended harmful outcomes, only Canada has legislated such fuller oversight.

Despite the heightened concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, this report notes how biorisk management policies have not improved in most countries.

The report lays out a variety of criteria for ensuring the safe operation of these facilities, and recommends stronger policies, monitoring by international experts, and better biosafety and biosecurity governance. Only Canada has in place the legislation to manage their BioSafety Labs and responsibly conduct the critical experiments necessary to protect their citizens.

A brief summary of this report provided to readers of the journal Science notes the “report urges the World Health Organization to strengthen guidance and individual countries to agree to audits by outside experts to ensure that their labs meet international standards”.

John Richard Schrock is a Roe R Cross Distinguished Professor and biology professor emeritus at Emporia State University where he was certified as departmental HAZMAT officer for 10 years.