In 2020, the Global BioLabs initiative, launched by a group of academics, set out to map facilities conducting research on the most dangerous pathogens, such as the ones responsible for untreatable infectious diseases like Ebola, Lassa fever or even smallpox. These laboratories are called “biosafety level 4” (BSL-4 or P4 in France). By 2021, biosafety researcher Filippa Lentzos (King’s College, London) and her colleagues identified 59 BSL-4 laboratories – either operational, under construction, or planned – in 23 countries. In its latest report, published in March 2023Global BioLabs counted 10 more, now spread across a total of 27 countries, and called for increased international supervision of their activities.
A session on the origin of Covid-19 held on Tuesday, April 18, at the Académie Nationale de Médecine Française (French National Academy of Medicine) echoed these concerns. Several experts called for a halt to certain experiments aimed at making viruses and bacteria more pathogenic or transmissible – a process sometimes called “gain of function” – which are not always conducted in the safest laboratories.
The number of facilities dealing with dangerous pathogens had already increased after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States and the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia. This time, “the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered another building boom for BSL4 labs,” read the Global Biolabs report. Lentzos added, “What is most striking is that the majority of laboratories under construction or planned are in countries that did not have such facilities, and sometimes also lack the regulatory framework to conduct these activities.” Among the countries ready to join the BSL-4 club, the report cited Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Spain.
Dual-use risk little taken into account in France
“It’s not a bad thing in and of itself that these labs are being built and will provide better conditions for researchers to study dangerous pathogens,” said Lentzos. “But there are safety, security and dual-use risks associated with these activities. We need to be sure that the benefits outweigh the risks,” she added.
Here are some definitions according to Global BioLabs, matching those used in the nuclear sector. Biosafety refers to “the principles, technologies, measures and practices of containment that can be used to prevent the inadvertent release or unintentional exposure to biological agents or biological material.” Biosecurity includes the protocols and technologies meant to “prevent unauthorized access to or loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release” of the pathogens. And dual-use refers to the fact that some civilian research may have military and/or terrorist implications and may be misused for this purpose. In France, the definitions of “biosafety” and “biosecurity” are reversed, which can lead to confusion.
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