Countries with the laxest rules governing laboratories that house the world’s most dangerous pathogens were today named and shamed.
Saudi Arabia, Gabon, and Cote d’Ivoire came bottom of the pile in terms of safety standards inside Biosaftey Level 4 labs, secretive sites which often harbor pathogens like smallpox, Ebola and Lassa fever.
Canada, the US, Australia and the UK had some of the best standards overall, according to infectious disease experts who ranked all known facilities across the world.
China, however, ranked middle of the pile overall.
This graph shows the countries wither either operational or planned high risk labs ranked by the strength of their biorisk management polices that could prevent a deadly pathogen from being released or developed. The lower the score, the fewer or weaker the measures in place
This graph shows rules and restrictions governing research that could make high risk pathogens deadlier. Only Canada, the US and UK scored 50 or more
Gain of function research: Everything you need to know about the risky lab experiments
What is gain of function?
It is a highly controversial research practise that involves intentionally altering a pathogen, in order to improve its ability to cause disease.
At its most basic level, scientists modify them to make them more infectious or lethal.
Usually, trials are carried out on human cells or rodents — to see how they behave under tightly-controlled lab settings.
Why is it done?
The reason for such experiments is they allow scientists to effectively see ‘around the corner’ and anticipate how a pathogen might evolve naturally.
It also gives scientists a chance to better understand its effects on humans, and how it behaves.
This can, in theory, speed up the development of drugs and vaccines, especially for infectious diseases that are currently untreatable.
Is it dangerous?
Gain of function research — despite being carried out in biocontainment facilities with workers in hazmat suits and sealed doors — is hugely controversial.
Critics argue the benefits of the research are not worth the potential risks, however tiny they are.
Some scientists fear the development of mutant viruses could lead to the next pandemic, if they were to ever accidentally leak from a lab.
Such an event is one of the origin theories for the original Covid virus, which was first spotted in Wuhan, near the now infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Defenders insist that such changes can, however, occur naturally.
Is it only done on Covid?
Despite being thrust into the limelight during the Covid pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the only pathogen to have been experimented on in this way.
Gain of function has been used for years, including by creating more drought-resistant plants and modifying E. coli so that it break down plastic waste.
What constitutes gain of function?
There is huge debate among experts about what exactly constitutes ‘gain of function’ research.
Some studies do not set out to intentionally create a more dangerous pathogen, but may do so while modifying it to learn more about how it infects cells.
Yet when it came to dual research, a branch of experiments that can include ‘gain of function’ – which carries the risk of making pathogens more deadly, it scored zero out of 100.
One of these noted by the experts is China’s infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is thought by some experts to have accidently unleashed the original Covid virus onto the world in 2020.
The lab has been accused of conducting experiments intentionally modifying pathogens to make them more dangerous, a practise which experts fear could trigger the next pandemic.
Such research can include incredibly controversial ‘gain of function’ studies.
This is where scientists intentionally make pathogens more infectious, deadly, or more resistant to drugs or vaccines.
Defenders of the practise say such scientific work helps prepare for the potential natural evolution of viruses and bacteria, giving experts a head-start on research to combat them.
But critics claim the labs doing this work risk unleashing the next global pandemic if the pathogen they are working on ever breaches containment.
Some even suspect this has already happened, with the leak of such an engineered virus from the WIV into the Wuhan wet markets and then to the rest of the world one of suspected origins of the pandemic that has claimed millions of lives.
The infamous lab carried out studies on types of coronaviruses found in bats, with some arguing this work constituted gain of function experiments, though others refute this.
Now an international team of experts have ranked the countries with the best and worst rules and regulations governing BSL-4 labs.
While China scored 0 for research regulations, it was not the worst performer overall.
Each of the 27 countries with an operational BSL-4 lab, or one under construction or planned, was given an overall biorisk management percentage score out of 100.
This represented the strength of its rules on aspects like lab safety, security procedures to stop pathogens being stolen, and research oversight and approval.
Saudi Arabia, where a lab called the National Health Laboratory is listed as ‘planned’, had the lowest overall score of 6 per cent.
Gabon in Central Africa was the lowest scorer with an actual operational lab, scoring 8 per cent.
China’ overall management score was in the middle of the pack, 69 per cent.
The UK and the US were high scorers in overall risk management, ranked fourth and second at 83 per cent and 88 per cent, respectively.
Canada was the best performer by far, scoring 96 per cent.
This was, in part, due to Canada’s strict rules regarding research on the modification of pathogens, the only country to receive a good ranking in this separate category by Global Biolabs, a team of biosecrity experts which carried out the research.
And this map shows the overall biorisk management scores for nations with either an operational or underway BSL-4 lab. Countries shaded green and ranked as good, yelow medium, and red poor
Pictured: The Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some experts think Covid escaped into the wider world
Virologist Shi Zheng-li works with her colleague in the P4 lab of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Hubei province – which is at the heart of the lab-leak theory. Nicknamed the ‘Bat Lady’, Zheng-li hunted down dozens of deadly Covid-like viruses in bat caves and studied them at the WIV
In addition to China, other 0 scorers included Belarus, Czech Republic, Gabon, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Spain.
The UK and the US were only medium performers in this category, scoring 50 per cent each.
By total biorisk management score, seven countries were rated high (above 70 per cent) 15 score medium (above 30 per cent) and five scored below this.
In total, the Global Biolabs team found 52 BSl-4 labs in operation around the world, with 17 more either being built or planned.
Of these 69 the vast majority, four out of five, are in built-up urban areas like cities.
Dr Gregory Koblentz an expert in biodefence at George Mason University in the US, said this proximity to people increases the danger.
’80 per cent are located in urban areas which heightens concerns about accidents at these facilities,’ he said at a webinar unveiling he ranking system.
He added that the Covid pandemic had seen a boom in countries seeking to expand or establish a BSL-4 labs in their boarders.
The Global Biolabs team said a critical limitation of their research was that it was based on the rules and regulations as they were written or existed in each country.
Therefore, the results did not reflect how closely they were followed in the labs themselves.
Dr Filippa Lentzos, an expert in international security at King’s College London and fellow researcher, said: ‘We looked at what was on the books not how things actually operated in practise.’
Dr Lentzos added that a particular worrying aspect of the BSL-4 boom was those countries looking to open their first lab were the bottom scorers in terms of good biorisk management.
‘Many of the countries that are currently building new maximum containment facilities, some of them for the very first time, are scoring poorly,’ she said.
However, she added, that as the labs were yet to be opened there was still time to bring in rules and regulations that will help reduce the risk of pathogen escape.
The Global Biolabs team also ranked each country hosting a BSL-4 lab by their reliable Governance and their stability.
Whilst two out of three rated good for Governance, only about half scored high in terms of stability.
The experts noted that most of the planned labs are going to be built in countries who were poor performers in terms of governance and stability as another factor of concern.
The team has called for countries to adopt a set of internationally agreed rules on biorisk management and research on pathogens, committing to sharing best safety and security practises, and fulfil international reporting requirements on their labs.
They added this should be the case for all labs involved on research in high-risk pathogens, this includes BSL-3 labs which can be hosted at some universities.
Dr Koblentz said: ‘The work they do can still be dangerous to themselves and the surrounding community.’
China’s official pandemic timeline of the coronavirus pandemic and the evidence that undermines it
Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection
Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation
Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection
Jan 7 – President Xi Jinping discusses coronavirus outbreak with his politburo
Jan 9 – China makes public the genome of the coronavirus
Jan 11 – China reported its first death
Jan 13 – First case outside China is confirmed
Jan 20 – China’s National Health Commission confirms human-to-human transmission
Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down
Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases
Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West
May 29 – China claims virus did not originate in wet markets but in Chinese bats before it jumped to humans via an ‘intermediary animal’
July 31 – Chinese researcher admits some coronavirus experiments conducted in lower biosafety labs
Dec 16 – WHO announces it will travel to Wuhan to probe origins of virus in January
Jan 5, 2021 – China denies entry to WHO’s investigatory team
Feb 9 – WHO dismisses theory virus leaked from lab – backs China’s claim it was imported from frozen meat
Mar 28 – Former US national security officials says intel shows ‘there was a direct order from Beijing to destroy all viral samples’ at Wuhan lab
2012: Six miners struck down with with a mysterious flu-like illness in Mojiang cave in Yunnan.
They were found to have been infected with the closest known relative to Covid, sharing 97% of its genes.
Samples RATG13 are sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to be studied.
Sep 2019– Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus
Oct – Whistleblower Wei Jingsheng claims China deliberately spread Covid at The World Military Games in Wuhan in October, two months before the rest of the world knew about the virus
Oct – Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime tried desperately to shut down whistle-blowers like Mr Jingsheng. Any references made in social media about a new SARS virus or ‘outbreak’ were censored
Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus
Nov – Whistleblower Mr Jingsheng claims he took his concerns about the military games to senior figures within the Trump administration but was ignored
Nov – Intelligence report passed to agencies in Washington claims three members of staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sought hospital treatment in November 2019 after experiencing symptoms consistent with Covid
Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present
Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus
Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date
Dec – Doctors in China, including Li Wenliang, report existance of new type of respiratory infection. But Chinese police arrested him and eight of his colleagues for questioning – instead of publicising reports and warning public
Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing
Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities
Dec 26 – Samples analysed suggested a new type of SARS was circulating as early as December 26, but Wuhan was not locked down until January 22
Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city
Jan 3 – Covid-19 infections begin sweeping across other nations including the U.S. as the WHO labelled the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern
May – Scientists at a government lab in California concluded that Covid-19 may have escaped from a facility in Wuhan
July – WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said China failed share vital raw data during their investigation in Wuhan. China rebuffed those claims
June 2021: Leading US virus expert Dr Anthony Fauci was warned Covid may have been engineered in a lab, emails publicly released reveal.
August: The world’s first Covid-19 patient may have been infected by a bat while working for a Wuhan lab in China, WHO chief Dr Peter Embarek said
August: A damning report by Republicans in the US claims coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, shortly after the facility tried to improve air safety and waste treatment systems
The report also cited ‘ample evidence’ that lab scientists were working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans and such manipulation could be hidden.
October: US intelligence review into origins of pandemic does not reach a judgement on whether the virus emerged via animal-to-human transmission or a lab leak.
Chinese officials branded the report ‘political and false’.
January 2022: Leaked emails from top UK scientist Sir Jeremy Farrar showed he admitted in February 2020 that it was a ‘likely explanation’ that the virus could be man-made. But he went on to brand the theory a ‘conspiracy’.
February: Sir Farrar is called to be interviewed under oath at the US Congress. Officials want him to explain why he shifted away from the lab leak theory.