Specimens await testing for Covid-19 at a biosafety lab. Photo: Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS

China will establish at least one high-security laboratory in each of its 23 mainland provinces to diagnose and recognize viruses as the nation emerges from its Covid-19 outbreak.

Yet some experts have warned that despite ample funding, China may still lack rigorous enforcement of biosafety protocols as well as trained and certified professionals to make sure infectious viruses will not leak out into the population.

In January and February, China’s handful of top-tier virus biosafety labs were inundated with Covid-19 samples from Wuhan, the pandemic’s initial epicenter.

The National People’s Congress’ deputies have joined the chorus for more funding for a national lab building spree. The plan for the 23 provincial labs has been endorsed by the national health authority.

During this year’s parliamentary session in May, Beijing committed an extra trillion yuan (US$142.6 billion) for healthcare and public health research.

Xinhua news agency reported the investments would be in manpower and hardware in the next five years. Leading the charge are populous coastal provinces like Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang that have frequent exchanges with foreign countries.

Specimens containing viruses are stored in a BSL-3 lab in Shanghai. Photo: Xinhua

Guangdong’s provincial party paper, the Southern Daily, revealed in May that the province would build up to 30 pathogen protection biosafety level-3 (P3 or BSL-3) labs and at least one BSL-4 facility, the most advanced in the worldwide biosafety hierarchy, in the next five years.

Wang Ruijun, the chief of Guangdong’s Department of Science and Technology, said the plan would enhance China’s response to future health contingencies.

The need to transport specimens from one lab to another and the risk of leakage would be greatly reduced when there were more labs up and running in different cities across Guangdong, China’s most populous province, he said.

“America has close to 1,500 BSL-3 labs, and almost all major hospitals and medical schools have them, some even have more than one such lab,” Wang said at the NPC session.

“So it is pressing for Guangdong to play catch-up and lead the national effort to invest in this vital area of public health as the Covid-19 has taught us a lesson.”

Guangdong was the breeding ground of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak back in 2002 and 2003, which infected neighboring Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The southern economic powerhouse of more than 100 million residents does not have a BSL-4 lab that can handle the most deadly and easily transmittable pathogens such as SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome and Ebola.

Beijing says the lesson learnt from the Covid-19 epidemic is that the nation needs more advanced labs to research and recognize viruses. Photo: Xinhua

The biocontainment equipment and precautions required to isolate dangerous biological agents in a BSL-4 lab include airflow systems, positive pressure personnel suits, multiple containment rooms, sealed containers and high levels of security to control access to the facility.

There are only two BSL-4 labs currently in operation in mainland China – the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute.

Concerns about biosafety protocols center on slack oversight and opaque reporting. A year after the 2003 SARS epidemic in China, leakage of the virus at China’s National CDC caused two infections among its staff in Beijing and at least eight cases in Anhui province. Five top CDC officials, including the center’s director, were sacked for gross negligence.

Ryan Clarke, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, has also highlighted the extremely unpredictable nature of bat coronavirus gain-of-function studies. 

The research into gain-of-function mutations of viruses usually changes the gene product such that the effect of mutations gets stronger or is even superseded by a different and abnormal function, and as a result a pathogen may acquire stronger abilities to “jump” from bats to humans while skipping an intermediary animal host.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of the only two BSL-4 labs in operation in mainland China, is supposed to be one of the most secure virology units in the world. Credit: China Daily.

“This is the problem with gain-of-function studies on bat coronaviruses – such as those conducted by the team led by virologist Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the local outbreak – and you have no idea what’s going to happen… These experiments are so risky that you can lose control in an instant,” Clarke told Asia Times in an interview. 

Clarke previously held epidemiological intelligence and public health roles at Deutsche Bank, Oxford and Singapore National University Hospital.

“The rapid proliferation of high-grade biosafety labs across China may amplify the risk if more such gain-of-function studies and experiments are conducted at these facilities in the country. 

“And usually, these studies receive inadequate oversight and precautions at these new facilities. The fact is that many such studies are no longer conducted in the US and elsewhere. Also, some Chinese researchers have demonstrated a substantially greater risk appetite and they appear to be more willing to experiment with frontier methods that may lead to unpredictable and ultimately uncontrollable consequences.”

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