THE number of biolabs handling the world’s most dangerous viruses has boomed in the last two years as experts warn of a “deadly arms race” to build high risk facilities.
The locations of the labs spread across 27 countries have been plotted by King’s College London experts in an effort to highlight the risks posed by the facilities.
The report, penned by Dr Filippa Lentzos and Dr Gregory D. Koblentz, warned the number of high risk labs is “rapidly increasing”.
Since 2021, ten brand new biosecurity level four (BSL-4) labs are now in operation, under construction, or planned.
Of the 69 labs – which deal with some of the most deadly pathogens – 51 are up and running, 15 are planned, and three are being built.
And despite questions still raging over whether Covid could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, nine countries have revealed plans to build 12 new BSL-4 labs since the pandemic started.
Biosafety expert Dr Richard Ebright said the explosion in high risk labs in the US from 2002 has led to a “deadly international arms race in BSL-4 capacity”.
The professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University warned the scramble to build the dangerous labs is “accelerating worldwide”.
“The international arms race in BSL-4 construction that the US began, and that China and Russia joined, is now accelerating worldwide,” he told The Sun Online.
“The US should end the international arms race it began.
“The US should conduct, for the first time, a national needs assessment in for BSL-4 capacity… and should decommission US BSL-4 capacity in excess of justifiable US needs.”
And Dr Lentzos and Dr Koblentz warned international standards are woefully inadequate to properly police the major threat posed by the labs.
“More countries are building high-containment laboratories, developing dual-use biotechnologies, and conducting risky research with pathogens,” the authors said.
“The dangers posed by an accidental or deliberate release of a pandemic-capable pathogen means that strengthening international oversight is critical.”
The King’s College London report reveals the largest concentration of BSL-4 labs remains in Europe, with 26, one of which is being built in the UK, and one of which is planned in Spain.
Asia has 20, 11 of which are planned in China, India, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Japan.
North America has 15, one of which is under construction in the US and two of which are planned in Canada and the US.
Australia has four of the high risk labs – all of which are operational.
Africa has three, two in Gabon and South Africa, and one being built in Côte d’Ivoire, while South America has one planned in Brazil.
The dangers posed by an accidental or deliberate release of a pandemic-capable pathogen means that strengthening international oversight is critical
Global BioLabs Report
BSL-4 labs are designed to work with potentially devastating viruses for which there are no vaccine or cure.
Pathogens which have been studied in labs of this kind include Ebola, the Nipah and Lassa viruses, and Crimean-Congo heamorrhagic fever – all which have potential to be more fatal than Covid.
The locations are high security environments where scientists have to wear protective suits in pressurised chambers which they have to enter via airlocks.
Despite all these security efforts, it is always feared something could escape and potentially cause devastation.
“The boom in BSL-4 lab construction appears so far not to have been accompanied by strengthened biorisk management oversight,” the report said.
“Approximately 75 per cent of BSL-4 labs are located in urbanised areas, exacerbating the impact of any accidental releases.”
Of the 69 BSL-4 labs, 54 work on human health, seven focus only on animal research, and four do both.
The report said 11 out of the 20 most high risk labs that are planned or being built are in Asia.
“In 2021, we identified 59 BSL-4 labs that were in operation, under construction, or planned in 23 countries,” the report added.
“By the beginning of 2023, that number had increased by ten to 69 labs.
“Since the start of the pandemic, nine countries have announced plans to build 12 new BSL-4 labs. Most of these new labs will be built in Asia.”
And when BSL-4 and BSL-3+ labs are added together, there are more than 100 labs carrying out high risk research around the world – with more planned and under construction.
The international arms race in BSL-4 construction that the US began, and that China and Russia joined, is now accelerating worldwide
Dr Richard Ebright
The US is home to the single largest concentration of such labs, with 28 BSL-4 and BSL-3+ labs in operation and three more being built.
BSL-3+ also labs carry out risky research on dangerous pathogens – such as the reconstruction of the 1918 flu pandemic.
The paper was published as questions still rage over the origins of Covid.
Many experts and intelligence officials suspect bungling scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology accidentally spread Covid during so-called “gain of function” experiments on bat coronaviruses.
Fresh intelligence from the US Department of Energy has also now concluded Covid most likely leaked from a lab in China.
China has long been accused of covering up or distorting its role in the early days of the pandemic, with claims the Communist Party manipulated case and death figures while withholding information from WHO.
Former intelligence chiefs and diplomats have claimed the virus was leaked from the lab in the “cover up of the century” that is “worse than Watergate”.
There is currently no evidence to suggest the virus was intentionally released by China.
And both China and the lab have furiously denied any allegations.
But Beijing continues to refuse cooperate with a full-scale probe into the origins of the virus.