Hazard suits at the high-security National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan. Photo: Wuhan Virology Institute

Controversy and secrecy appear to lurk in the corridors of the National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan.

Described as “a cell within the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Virology,” it conducts “coronavirus research” and is a United Nations “reference laboratory for infectious diseases.” It is also situated in the city which in December spawned the first reported cases of the deadly Covid-19 disease.

A wet market only 16 kilometers, or 10 miles, away initially became “ground zero” in what would turn out to be a global pandemic. 

As well as specializing in seafood, the bustling bazaar sold snakes, raccoons, porcupines and even deer. They were kept in cages along the crowded walkways before the popular menagerie was closed down at the end of January.

“This is a remarkable coincidence. It may be no more than that. It does not mean that Covid-19 came from the Wuhan laboratory. But the global silence on this coincidence illustrates the degree to which China controls [the] global narrative,” a report released last month by Horizon Advisory and entitled The Prestige, Sensible Questions about the Wuhan Lab, stated.

The word “coincidence” has been a recurring theme in background stories about the laboratory, which at times resemble discarded scripts from The X-Files. In February, Asia Times reported that the government facility denied allegations it “made” and accidentally “leaked a bio-hazardous agent.”

At first, that did not fit in with the “zoonotic theory” in which a highly infectious disease caused by a pathogen can jump from animals to humans.

SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, was a coronavirus that emerged in 2002 and was traced through wild civets cats to cave-dwelling bats in Yunnan province. More than 8,000 people became infected worldwide with a death toll of nearly 800. 

Covid-19 is believed to be a similar pathogen although in less than five months infected cases across the globe have surged to more than 1.34 million with nearly 75,000 deaths. The speed of the timeline has been frightening.

Last weekend, claims again emerged that a high-level British ministerial meeting of Cobra had not ruled out a leak from the National Biosafety Laboratory in Wuhan.

Zoonotic theory

“There is a credible alternative view [to the zoonotic theory] based on the nature of the virus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that there is that laboratory in Wuhan. It is not discounted,” a member of Cobra, which receives classified briefings from the UK security services, told the London-based Daily Mail newspaper.

Yet what we do know is that the lab was cleared to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens or bacterium, virus or other microorganisms that can cause deadly diseases.

Back in 2017, Nature published an article entitled Inside China’s pathogen lab: maximum-security biosafety facility nears approval. The US$40 million institute was billed as one of the most secure virology units in the world. But three years ago, the leading international journal of science which was first published in 1869, highlighted concerns in the scientific community.

“Some scientists outside China worry about pathogens escaping, and the addition of a biological dimension to geopolitical tensions between China and other nations,” Nature noted.

The study by Horizon Advisory co-authors Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic has followed this trial of microbes back to 2004 when China “signed the Sino-French Emerging Infectious Diseases Cooperative Project.”

Lacking the technological prowess, Beijing linked up with the influential Institut Pasteur and the Merieux Foundation to make “an unprecedented leap from medical backwater to host one of the world’s highest-ranking laboratories,” the report revealed. 

“As the Wuhan Institute put it [at the time] ‘this [meant] Chinese scientists [could] study the most dangerous pathogenic microorganisms in their own lab,’” Horizon Advisory, a consultancy in Washington and New York which tracks the Chinese government and economic activity, pointed out.

“Beijing gamed international systems, prematurely and unnecessarily, to govern the world’s most dangerous pathogens. Its hold over international systems is such that it continues to do so even after covering up the emergence of a global pandemic – and at no point has been called upon to account for its safety protocols or preparedness,” the study added.

Fears also revolve around what is known as gain-of-function research, in which pathogens are manipulated to alter “their capabilities.” In 2014, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the US Department of Health and Human Services announced it was launching a detailed review into experiments involving those viruses.

“Such research made headlines in 2012 after two groups instilled the avian influenza virus H5N1 with the ability to transmit between ferrets through the air – a feat that prompted a year-long moratorium on H5N1 research,” The Scientist magazine reported at the time. “Now, in the face of threats like influenza, SARS and MERS, which have killed scores in the Middle East and Asia, the government is instituting a pause to funding for experiments involving these deadly viruses.”

Yet that “moratorium” was later “rescinded” in 2017, even though scientists were divided “over the benefits, and risks, of such studies,” The Lancet, a general medical journal first published in 1823, recalled.

Since then, the debate has continued in scientific circles in the US and Europe but not in China apart from a critical article from researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“The experience of laboratory biosafety personnel training is relatively lacking … Insufficient training staff and training problems such as uneven standards require urgent improvement,” they said in a white paper last year, Horizon Advisory reported.

Even earlier, “US experts expressed concerns” as the Wuhan lab went through the accreditation process. Those concerns have been magnified since the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the report’s co-authors de La Bruyère and Picarsic.

“Before we bestow further prestige upon Beijing for its role in epidemic relief, there should be sensible scrutiny of Covid-19’s emergence: What has been the Wuhan lab’s safety record? How regularly was the laboratory reviewed by international observers and with what results? Why did they discard initial Covid-19 samples?” they asked.

Lifting the veil of secrecy inside the National Biosafety Laboratory would answer those questions. And help silence speculation about a silent enemy that has brought the world to a standstill.

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