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An Unnerving Review of Accidents in High-Level Labs Handling Viruses

A healthcare worker walks in protective gear outside Wyckoff Heights Medical Center during the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City, April 2, 2020. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

Two facilities in the city of Wuhan were researching coronaviruses in bats — the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is China’s first biocontainment level-4 facility, inaugurated in 2015. It is still the country’s only one.

Professor Richard Ebright of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, told the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last month that “bat coronaviruses at Wuhan [Center for Disease Control] and Wuhan Institute of Virology routinely were collected and studied at BSL-2, which provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers.”

(If you want to get a sense of the differences in biosafety precautions and which diseases are studied at each level, the opening scene in the movie Outbreak walks viewers through the levels — or at least actors walking around on sets designed to look like the real-life labs. Level Two handles bacteria and viruses such as Lyme Disease and the standard flu, Level Three handles ones more dangerous such as anthrax and HIV, and Level Four handles the most dangerous, such as Ebola.)

Today’s Daily Mail features an article about the laboratories in Wuhan, and includes this quote expressing extreme skepticism about the lab-accident scenario.

Dr [Gerald] Keusch, Professor of Medicine and International Health at Boston University’s Schools of Medicine and Public Health, stressed that no release of viruses from a high-level lab, such as the one in Wuhan, ‘has ever happened’.

He defended his peers in the Chinese city as he said: ‘The Wuhan lab is designed to the highest standards with redundant safety systems and the highest level of training.

‘Many of its research faculty trained at a similar laboratory in Galveston, Texas. So we know the Wuhan team is as qualified as the Texas group…

‘This means the assertion of a leak, rather than being highly likely, instead is highly unlikely.’

Except . . . in February 2019, Lynn Klotz, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, laid out a report suggesting that human errors at these sorts of labs not only had occurred, but occurred unnervingly frequently.

Incidents causing potential exposures to pathogens occur frequently in the high security laboratories often known by their acronyms, BSL3 (Biosafety Level 3) and BSL4. Lab incidents that lead to undetected or unreported laboratory-acquired infections can lead to the release of a disease into the community outside the lab; lab workers with such infections will leave work carrying the pathogen with them. If the agent involved were a potential pandemic pathogen, such a community release could lead to a worldwide pandemic with many fatalities.

Such releases are fairly likely over time, as there are at least 14 labs (mostly in Asia) now carrying out this research. Whatever release probability the world is gambling with, it is clearly far too high a risk to human lives. Mammal-transmissible bird flu research poses a real danger of a worldwide pandemic that could kill human beings on a vast scale.

Human error is the main cause of potential exposures of lab workers to pathogens. Statistical data from two sources show that human error was the cause of, according to my research, 67 percent and 79.3 percent of incidents leading to potential exposures in BSL3 labs. These percentages come from analysis of years of incident data from the Federal Select Agent Program (FSAP) and from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Klotz described needle sticks and other through the skin exposures from sharp objects; dropped containers or spills and splashes of liquids containing pathogens; bites or scratches from infected animals; pathogens manipulated outside of a biosafety cabinet or other equipment designed to protect exposures to infectious aerosols; failure to follow safety procedures; failure or problems with personal protective equipment; mechanical or equipment failure; and failure to properly inactivate pathogens before transferring them to a lower biosafety level lab for further research. There are plenty of real-life examples for every medical menace in every Robin Cook novel. And this is separate from the other frightening examples of lab accidents laid out last week.

The existence of accidents at other laboratories does not prove that a lab accident is the origin of SARS-CoV-2. But the argument that the scientists at either laboratory in Wuhan are simply too well-trained and diligent to ever make a consequential mistake is not persuasive.

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