Wuhan’s lower biosafety level labs posed greater risk for coronavirus lab leak, experts said

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Biosafety experts, including one with longstanding ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), privately harbored questions about risks taken with coronavirus research at biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) labs, including those in Wuhan, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The researchers felt that BSL-3 labs were more vulnerable to accidents, even more so than BSL-4 labs, a level used for the most potentially dangerous of pathogens.

While the WIV’s BSL-4 has been at the center of attention about biosafety practices related to the origin of Covid-19, the emails raise more questions about whether SARS-CoV-2 could have emerged from a lower biosafety level lab in Wuhan.

The emails cast doubt upon the biosafety protocols in place when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), a U.S-based nonprofit research organization, to carry out research with the WIV and the University of North Carolina (UNC) that infected mice expressing human receptors with engineered novel bat coronaviruses. Much of that work on bat coronaviruses appears to have taken place in BSL-3 labs in Wuhan, according to grant documents submitted to the NIH; and in some cases, even lower containment BSL-2 labs in Wuhan, according to a Journal of Virology article, and other sources.

James Le Duc, a leading biosafety expert, and former director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), and David Franz, a bioweapons expert and former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), exchanged concerns about U.S. and Chinese BSL-2 and BSL-3 labs.

Le Duc has had significant contact with scientists in Wuhan over the years. He trained WIV scientists at the Galveston National Laboratory, and records show he made multiple trips to Wuhan since 1986 to train virologists there.

On May 15, 2021, after Franz shared a letter in Science in support of investigating the origins of Covid-19, including a possible lab origin, Le Duc wrote: “I’m afraid that it may be way too late to find much out but it should be attempted, including the bsl2 and bsl3 labs where I suspect the risk for accidental release is greater.”

On Jun 2, 2021, Le Duc wrote to Franz: “The focus on BSL4 is justified but the bigger problem is likely at BSL3 where many more exist and standards are varied.”

Franz wrote back to Le Duc, “I also mentioned the issue you raise about a focus on 4s, both because they tend to be taken more seriously by governments (possibly making them safer and more secure) than 2s or 3s and also that the 2s and 3s are generally more vulnerable than 4s.”

Biosafety level (BSL) designations were established in the mid-1970s. Biosafety labs are designated BSL-1 to BSL-4, with 4 as the most stringent in practices and containment of potential pathogens. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NIH establish BSL designations. Pathogen Level [P] lab 1 to 4 designations are used interchangeably with BSL.

BSL-2 labs include ‘biosafety cabinets’ with HEPA filtration, where experiments are performed, providing lab researchers protection from infectious agents, according to the biosafety manuals of the CDC and Boston University. Personal protective equipment (PPE), including lab coats, gloves, and eye protection as well as decontaminating procedures, are standard. BSL-3 labs have additional biosafety measures, particularly to protect against agents with respiratory transmission routes; these include full gowns or Tyvek suits, face shields, and additional “risk-based” protections such as ventilation devices, which may differ depending on the agent being used. BSL-3 labs require negative pressure and a specialized anteroom, so that agents will be contained within the lab even in the case of an accidental spill or contamination; and have more extensive HEPA filtration systems.

BSL-4 facilities have been a focus of biosafety discussions because the most deadly and dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola and Marburg viruses, are studied there. BSL-4s have more custom-designed containment and stricter requirements, including “mandatory use of positive-pressure (“space”) suits” and “dedicated nonrecirculating ventilation systems.

In EHA-led work conducted in Wuhan, scientists infected humanized mice with engineered novel bat coronaviruses in a BSL-3 facility, according to grant documents EHA submitted to the NIH.  Some collection and engineering of bat coronaviruses were done in a BSL-2, with less stringent protocols and containment, according to multiple sources including a paper in the Journal of Virology .

“I think we need to remember that a lot of the work, especially on coronaviruses, has been done (presumably) at BSL3…”, wrote Le Duc.

In the NIH-funded EHA grant proposal, there was ambiguity as to where the humanized mouse infections would be performed. While many biosafety details were specified in the proposal for Ralph Baric’s UNC BSL-3 animal facility – such as “rodent-sized Seal-Safe systems (~192 cages) for maintaining animals in a Hepa-filtered Air in/out environment, exhausted into the BSL3 Hepa-filtered exhaust system” – few details were provided about biosafety measures for the animal work in Wuhan. EHA President Peter Daszak wrote to NIH staff in the summer of 2017, that “UNC has no oversight of the chimeric work, all of which will be conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” according to emails obtained by the White Coat Waste Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Confusingly, the infections of humanized mice with chimeric coronaviruses were said to be performed not only in Ralph Baric’s UNC animal BSL-3 lab, but at two locations in Wuhan – Wuhan University and the WIV. The animal BSL-3 labs at Wuhan University, were more sparsely described than those at the WIV, with general statements such as, experimental work using humanized mice will be conducted at the Center for Animal Experiment Biosafety 3 lab of Wuhan University at the School of Medicine in Wuhan, China…Animals will be housed in a BSL-3 facility and will be under the care of a full-time veterinarian.” More detailed descriptions of the animal protocols, however, were said to be available through the WIV or Wuhan University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) .

Franz wrote to Le Duc: “I haven’t worried about the BSL-4 lab, but certainly the one downtown [in Wuhan].”

Earlier this year, the Global Times reported that, “Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in April 2020 that China had two P4 labs in operation and 81 P3 labs in operation or approved for construction.”

Franz wrote, “There are also so many 2s and 3s that it is almost impossible to deal with them; it’s what happened with the legally binding protocol proposal to the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention] in the mid-90s.”

Le Duc wrote to Franz: “…the greatest risk is from the lower levels of biocontainment, but we don’t want to suggest that everything be moved to BSL4 either.”

U.S. Right to Know obtained the records reported on in this article through a Texas Public Information Act request to the University of Texas Medical Branch. We believe these records underscore the importance of transparency to minimize biosafety risks, prevent lab leaks and contain potential pandemic pathogens. They also highlight the need for scrutiny of current biosafety precautions.

Written by Sainath Suryanarayanan