U.S. Right to Know confirms a third maximum containment lab in China

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Representatives of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences are pictured with representatives of the University of Texas Medical Branch in September 2014. (Photo credit: UTMB)

A new maximum biocontainment lab in Kunming, China, was certified three years ago while remaining under-the-radar in the U.S. biodefense community, documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show.

China’s plans to build an ABSL-4 under the Institute of Medical Biology and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming were previously known. But U.S. Right to Know can report for the first time that the lab has long been accredited by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment, a pivotal step toward becoming operational. Animal biosafety level four, or ABSL-4, refers to the level of biosafety precautions needed to study the world’s most dangerous viruses and other pathogens in animals.

The quiet start at the Kunming lab could suggest skittishness among Chinese authorities about publicizing it due to the controversy surrounding another BSL-4 lab – the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It also underscores that international standards for reporting and transparency have lagged behind the proliferation of labs working with pandemic potential pathogens.

The “Kunming National Primate Research Center of High Level Biosafety” received accreditation in late 2018 or early 2019, according to a presentation given at a U.S.-China summit.

The lab works with rhesus monkeys, according to the documents.

Yunzhang Hu, a professor at the Institute of Medical Biology, told the summit that the lab’s aims include developing medical countermeasures and supporting emergency response to emerging infectious diseases.

While U.S. institutions like the National Academies were aware of the Kunming lab, it was apparently not widely understood that the lab has been making strides toward research on high risk pathogens for years.

A World Health Organization report in 2017 listed three BSL-4 or ABSL-4 labs in China: two in operation in Wuhan and Harbin and a third planned in Beijing. The Kunming lab is not mentioned. A map of BSL-4 labs assembled by top Western biodefense experts does not report the Kunming lab either.

While the lab’s work appeared in scientific papers in 2020 and 2021, demonstrating it was operational, China may not have publicized it in part because of international concerns about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 lab at the pandemic’s epicenter, according to Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and co-creator of the map. Koblentz said he became aware of the lab shortly after his map was published in 2021 and that it would be added to its next iteration.

The maximum containment lab in Kunming is one of five to seven China has slated to construct by 2025, Nature reported. Accreditation from the CNAS is needed before the Ministry of Health can approve a BSL-4 lab, according to the scientific journal.

Efforts to support BSL-4 work in Kunming predate the lab’s accreditation.

U.S. researchers funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases traveled to Kunming in 2014 to review animal facilities and present information on BSL-4 technical requirements, according to a federal grant report. Training continued throughout the year. The Kunming lab’s researchers traveled to a U.S. maximum biocontainment lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch for further training.

U.S.-China summit

The U.S.-China dialogue was co-hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and held in Harbin, China, in January 2019. The topics centered on the opportunities and risks of gene editing in infectious diseases research.

The Harbin summit was the fourth in a series on biosafety involving both American and Chinese institutions, and came just a year before reports of a novel coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan.

U.S. biodefense experts began planning in June for a firth summit slated for October or November 2019, according to other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. But Chinese partners suggested a summit under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan rather than under the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Kunming, the emails indicate.

The January summit in Harbin included presentations from many experts who have since become central to the COVID-19 origins controversy. The summit included two sessions on “science and ethics in research with pathogens with pandemic potential” and “understanding and engineering viral pathogens with pandemic potential.” The sessions described technical challenges with engineering chimeric viruses as well as the safety and ethical questions the technology raises.

Zhengli Shi, a top virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, discussed the impact that spike binding domains play in determining whether MERS viruses can spillover from animal to human hosts.

Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus researchers at the University of North Carolina and a collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, gave a presentation on the lack of predictability when engineering viruses to be more pathogenic.

He spoke about a “sweet spot” that optimizes the ability of a virus to infect humans and cause severe disease.

“Creating a virus that is super-adapted to a particular host can actually result in an attenuation of virulence, if the virus interacts overly strongly with a cellular receptor,” the summary of his comments reads. “This shows the complexity of deliberate design as well as the potential sweet spot for pathogenicity.”

This unpredictability can undermine the value of models that attempt to predict viral evolution and the danger a virus could pose to humans, he said.

Baric also said that a combination of altering a virus’ receptor binding domain and passaging through mice can sometimes be required to generate more dangerous viruses.

Baric also noted the ease of synthesizing coronaviruses, saying the cost had decreased from $42,000 to $6,000, and the relative ease of using CRISPR technology to create humanized mice.

Stanford School of Medicine microbiologist David Relman ⁠— who has recently been critical of virologists who have prematurely declared the origins debate settled ​​⁠— gave a presentation on responsibly preventing lab accidents as BSL-4 labs proliferate. Relman also raised questions about the feasibility and safety of the Global Virome Project, an effort to collect and catalog millions of animal viruses involving EcoHealth Alliance and Shi.

“In an era in which most viruses can be synthesized from a genetic sequence, the discovery of new viruses and elucidation of their properties may present both biosafety and biosecurity concerns,” Relman told the group.

Chinese experts expressed concerns about these issues too.

An expert with Tianjin University told the summit that balancing the positive uses and potential for misuse of pandemic potential pathogens made in the lab poses challenges.

The expert voiced concerns about “the potential for rapid changes in science and technology capabilities to outpace ethical and regulatory measures, and the need for appropriate governance,” the summary reads.

China has invested at least $150 million to $240 million in approximately 50 synthetic biology research projects since 2018, according to the presentation.

A summary of the summit’s presentations was obtained by U.S. Right to Know through a Freedom of Information Act litigation against the U.S. Department of Education, which had conducted an investigation of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

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