Verify Installation

WHO Wuhan's COVID-19 Visit Puts Spotlight on Biosafety for Global Health Security

By John Zarocostas - The Geneva Observer

February 4, 2021



Photo by Satheesh Sankaran on Unsplash

The initial visit on Wednesday by the WHO-led international team of experts—currently in China to look into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19—to Wuhan's Institute of Virology (a maximum Biosafety-Level 4 facility) has put the spotlight on the importance of such facilities for monitoring the emergence of new pathogens that may cause life-threatening diseases. But such facilities that have proliferated in recent years worldwide may also pose risks for health and the environment in the event of a laboratory accident. The Wuhan facility received its ISO certification in December 2016, and its research staff was trained in Australia, Canada, France, and the United States. The laboratory of Virology of Geneva's University Hospital is also a BSL-4 facility. Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist and leader of the China mission, asked in mid-January whether the investigators would look into claims the virus might have originated in a laboratory, declared: “When we look at our virus, the COVID-19 virus, there is nothing in its makeup that would indicate that it has been manufactured. It's clearly a natural virus and there are many of these around, we have seen several of them in the past. So, in itself, it's not a surprise. Laboratory accidents happen unfortunately once in a while. It has happened many times in the past. And of course, it's even a remote possibility. We have to look at this as a possibility.” "So, we will of course also look at that hypothesis among many others, even if it's an unlikely one. There is no evidence so far indicating that anybody was working with this virus in the past. There is no evidence to indicate that it would have escaped a laboratory in any way, but of course, we will have that in mind when we look at the origin of this virus,” he added. Some members of the WHO international expert team come from research facilities that have maximum BSL-4 laboratories. The latest edition of the WHO's Laboratory Biosafety Manual published in Dec 2020, defines a laboratory accident as: “An inadvertent occurrence that results in actual harm such as infection, illness, injury in humans or contamination of the environment.” The manual, considered the global standard for laboratory biosafety, also says that “Even when carrying out low-risk work and following all core requirements for biosafety, incidents can still occur .” Indeed, research studies have documented laboratory-related infections taking place. In 2003, for example, in Singapore a graduate student in microbiology at a local university working in a laboratory (BSL-3) where research was being conducted on SARS-CoV was infected. Similarly, in Dec 2003 a laboratory worker in Taiwan was infected with SARS. Senior diplomats and biosecurity experts, speaking privately, told The G|O that while medical research laboratories are relatively transparent about their operations, question marks remain about the lack of transparency of defence-related laboratories working on bio-defence research in many countries. The same source noted that the stalled Geneva-based arms control talks to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention by ushering in a verification regime, remains an issue of concern.