A count of BSL-3 labs in China

Note: this is a short adaptation of a section of ‘Outlines of a probabilistic evaluation of possible SARS-CoV-2 origins’ by G. Demaneuf and R. De Maistre, https://zenodo.org/record/4067919.

In this article we show that there are at least 112 individual BSL-3 labs in China across 62 lab complexes, and we further show how this number has evolved over the last 15 years.

Ways of counting labs

Counting BSL-3 labs in China is rather difficult as there is no official count and the few numbers published can be rather contradictory. Note also that there may be two ways of counting the labs:

  • One can count individual labs. For instance the P3 of the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory at the Zhengdian site (NBL-3) has 5 BSL-3 individual labs [11].

One reason for doing a lab-complexes count may be that all the BSL labs of the same level in the same premises likely share some of the same physical infrastructure, especially as to waste disposals. However this way of counting may result in an understatement of the risk, as the risk of Laboratory Acquired Infection should roughly be proportional to the number of researchers in these labs, hence roughly to the number of individual BSL-3 labs.

Some institutions do not indicate the number of individual-labs in their lab-complexes. In this case we counted only one individual lab for such a lab-complex. The true count of individual labs (for the lab complexes that we identified) is therefore likely higher than the one we give,

We also wish that available LAI risk estimates in the literature were a bit more precise on this point. In this paper we use the lab-complexes count which is a conservative way of interpreting the available LAI risk estimates.

Number of [A]BSL-3 labs across time

Based on available counts and our own count, we can show how the number of Chinese [A]BSL-3 labs has evolved across time.

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[A]BSL-3 Lab-count, using publicly available data [authors]

It is important to put these numbers into their proper context. The US has about 1,500 [A]BSL3 labs, so a much higher number (see for instance [73], page 25, for a similar graph for the US as of 2008). What matters here is not necessarily the number of [A]BSL-3 labs itself but the adequacy between the number, the available number of experienced workers, the proper implementation of biosafety processes (including working at the right BSL level) and the proper maintenance of these labs — all of which are potential risk factors if deficient.

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Available BSL-3 counts:

Here are the few Chinese pubic sources we can find giving some BSL-3 lab counts, going from the most recent to the oldest:

  • An article in the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报) [81] gives the most detailed recent counts that we could find in Chinese sources:

‘According to Ankang, a representative of the National People’s Congress and chairman of Hualan Bio, there are currently 89 domestic biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) laboratories (hereinafter referred to as P3), of which 55 are cell laboratories.’

According to incomplete statistics from the “Caijing” magazine, there are currently 68 P3 laboratories in mainland China, of which 55 are cell research laboratories (BSL-3) and 13 are infectious animal laboratories (ABSL-3).’

‘Bai Chunli, Secretary of the Party Leadership Group and Dean of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, published a signed article “Providing Strong Scientific and Technological Support for Comprehensively Improving the National Biosafety Governance Capability” in the “Flag” magazine in April 2020. China revealed that there are currently 81 P3 laboratories in China that have passed the review of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and 2 P4 laboratories are officially in operation.’

  • The ‘National Biosafety Systems’ review [82] by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) for Health Security (2016) mentions 63 accredited BSL-3/ABSL-3 labs in China.

‘As of December 31st 2013, 53 BSLs, including 42 BSL-3s, had been fully accredited in China and more laboratories have completed the accreditation in recent years.

In addition, more than 1000 BSL-2 labs are currently being operated in universities, research institutions, hospitals and R&D entrepreneurship centers.

In addition, four mobile BSL-3 laboratories were imported from Labover (Montpellier, France) and distributed to institutes in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong for the nation-wide surveillance of pathogens and the emergency response of post-disaster and global public health events. In addition, a self-designed and self-constructed mobile BSL-3 was composed of two 9125 mm containers and met the biosafety requirements for pathogen diagnosis.’

Note: the text is not entirely clear: In ’53 BSLs including 42 BSL-3s’, the 53 BSLs must mean 53 [A]BSL-3+, so most likely the author means 42 BSL-3 and 11 ABSL-3.

  • At least 30 [A]BSL-3 laboratories built and more 10 planned, based on respondents to a Nov 2013 survey [63].

For reference, the mainstream Chinese press seems to be seriously underreporting the number of BSL-3 labs. See for instance a reference to ‘more than 20 BSL-3’ as of May 2020 in the Global Times [84].

Our own count of BSL-3s:

We were able to determine that at least 112 individual [A]BSL-3 were operating in China as of August 2020, across 62 lab-complexes (excluding mobile laboratories).

For the exact list of BSL-3 labs, see: https://zenodo.org/record/4067919/files/BSL3_Labs_In_China.xlsx?download=1

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See https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1uFHnlnOZG9LUheY3W8gS4YoUilXuVSUuLi3xeeixEE0/edit?usp=sharing

What about BSL-4s?

While this article does not include BSL-4s in the probabilities, we shall still give a count for reference. We counted two active BSL-4s from available public data: the Wuhan National BSL-4 and the Harbin BSL-4 [85, 86]. Additionally the National Development and Reform Commission of People’s Republic of China set the goal of building 5 to 7 BSL-4s by 2025, as part of the ‘High-level biosafety laboratory system construction plan for 2016–2025’ [87, 62].


[11] Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory Equipment. Accessed at: http://lssf.cas.cn/en/facilities-view.jsp?id=ff8080814ff56599014ff59e677e003d

[59] Yuan Zhiming, “Current status and future challenges of high-level biosafety laboratories in China”, Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity, Volume 1, Issue 2, Sep 2019, pp. 123–127. Accessed at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jobb.2019.09.005.

[60] Yang Xu, Liang Huigang, Xuping, Shen Yi, Yuan Zhiming. “Consideration about improving the planning of high-level biosafety laboratory systems in China”. Oct 2016. Available from: http://www.bulletin.cas.cn/zgkxyyk/ch/reader/create_pdf.aspx?file_no=20161016&flag=1&year_id=2016&quarter_id=10

[62] The National Development and Reform Commission of People’s Republic of China. “High-level biosafety laboratory system construction 2016–2025 plan”. 2016. Available from: http://www.most.gov.cn/fggw/zfwj/zfwj2016/201701/W020170111563956252675.pdf

[63] Liu Xiao-yu, Li Si-si, Rong Rong, Zhao Chi-hong, Wang Zi-jun. “Construction and management of biosafety level-3 laboratories in China”. Nov 2013. This paper is a good discussion of the haphazard construction of BSL-3 without proper preparation and budget. Available from: http://web.archive.org/web/20200525165731/http://www.jbjc.org/JBJC/html/article_8085.htm

[73] United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), Report to Congressional Requesters, ‘High Containment Laboratories — National Strategy for Oversight Is Needed’. Sep 2009. Available at: https://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09574.pdf

[81] Jian Wen, Southern Metropolis Daily. ‘7 provinces are planning to build a new provincial CDC, and nearly 20 P3 laboratories nationwide are under construction simultaneously’. Aug 2020. Accessible at: https://www.sohu.com/a/412594506_161795

[82] UPMC Center for Health Security. “National Biosafety Systems”. Jul 2016. Available from: https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/2016/National%20Biosafety%20Systems.pdf

[83] Global Times. “Guangdong Province to build 25–30 P3 labs, one P4 lab within five years”. May 2020. Accessed at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1189394.shtml

[84] Global Times. “All provinces in China are asked to set up P3 lab: ministries”. May 2020. Accessed at: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1188916.shtml.

[85] Global Times. ‘Opening of Harbin ABSL-4’. Aug 2018. Accessed at http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1114487.shtml

[86] WHO Consultative Meeting on High/Maximum Containment (Biosafety Level 4) Laboratories Networking. Meeting Report. Dec 2017. Available from: https://www.who.int/ihr/publications/WHO-WHE-CPI-2018.40/en/

[87] Han Xia,Yi Huang, Haixia Ma, Bobo Liu, Weiwei Xie, Donglin Song, Yuan Zhiming. “Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory User Training Program, China”. Mar 2019. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332071471_Biosafety_Level_4_Laboratory_User_Training_Program_China

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