June 21, 2024

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A new report warns of inadequate security policies in laboratories that contain dangerous viruses

A new report warns of inadequate security policies in laboratories that contain dangerous viruses

There are more and more laboratories around the world that work with dangerous viruses. A new report warns that security policies are lagging behind.

Dieter Declin

The Global Biolabs Initiative (GBI) tracks the evolution of the number of laboratories in which scientists work with dangerous pathogens. This number has been mainly increasing since the early 2000s, under the influence of the SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreaks, and the Corona pandemic has received further reinforcement.

According to the new GBI report, 12 so-called BSL-4 labs have been operational since the start of the pandemic. biosafety level 4) which must meet the highest safety standards. India alone is planning four new laboratories. There are currently 69 active, under construction or planned BSL-4 labs in 27 countries around the world.

Scientists there study pathogens such as Ebola virus and monkeypox virus in special packages or sealed containers, in order to develop treatments and vaccines, among other things. A step lower in the hierarchy are BSL-3 + labs, which work with dangerous influenza viruses, among other things. There are now 57 of them.

“More and more countries are investing in research into dangerous pathogens in order to better prepare for a possible new epidemic,” says virologist Johan Neets, who works in the BSL-3+ laboratory at KU Leuven.

When such a virus accidentally leaves a laboratory, for example by an infected researcher, or falls into the hands of people with ill intentions, it can have far-reaching consequences. According to the researchers, the fact that about three out of four laboratories working with dangerous pathogens are located in cities increases the potential impact of the accident.

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GBI researchers investigated the state of biosafety policies in countries where BSL-3+ and BSL-4 laboratories are located or under construction. “We are seeing a rapid expansion of such labs in Asia, often in countries that are not doing so well in terms of risk management,” says author Philippa Lentzos (Kings College London).

Especially protection from ill-intentioned people falls short, according to the report. Only 12 of the 27 countries with a BSL-4 laboratory get a good score on this. Another sore point is the oversight of research that is well-intentioned but can backfire, such as when scientists manipulate viruses to understand what makes them more infectious and dangerous.

“We urgently need coordinated international action to address the growing biosecurity risks,” says author Gregory Koblentz (George Mason University).

The researchers ask, among other things, to get a clearer overview of who exactly is doing the research and what pathogens are in the different laboratories. There needs to be more oversight of implementation and compliance with international safety standards. “The increase in the number of laboratories working with dangerous pathogens has not yet been accompanied by adequate oversight,” Lentzos said.