BSL-4 Biosafety engineering research institutions in Tianjin, China
Research by the DRASTIC collective
1. Bioengineering in Tianjin, China
Biosafety is the conjunction of (a) well designed labs, (b) well trained researchers and lab hands and (c) correctly designed and applied processes, all under (d) the direction of a competent management. Remove any one of these 4 conditions and the biosafety of any lab may be crucially affected.
The design of BSL-4 labs (the (a) above) requires specific practical engineering skills and experience which are not common and which need to be complimented by strict quality control processes. When reviewing BSL-4 design and engineering capabilities in China, we very frequently come across the following institutions that happen to be all located in Tianjin:
- The PLA Institute of Medical Support Technology, Institute of Systems Engineering, Academy of Military Sciences, Tianjin 
- The National Bio-Protection Engineering Center of China, Tianjin
- The Tianjin University Center for Biosafety Research and Strategy (CBRS)
De facto most of the maximum containment laboratory research in China seems to be done in these Tianjin institutions.
2. The PLA Institute and the National Center
Location and test lab
Both institutes are located in Tianjin, at the same location Address: 300161 06 Wandong Road, Hedong District, Tianjin (天津市河东区万东路106号). Additionally the editorial department of the Chinese journal of Medical and Health Equipment is also to be found at the same address in Tianjin.
Sogou satellite imaging shows the construction of a large building on their campus between 2010 and 2012:
This building could be consistent with an experimental (test) laboratory, the kind of laboratory where the researchers experimented the air tightness of a full stainless steel structural walls labs, as implemented in the BSL-4 of Wuhan. The existence of such a laboratory was mentioned in publication:
“An experimental study was conducted on a domestic high-level pathogenic microorganism model laboratory, considering the sealing process of the containment structure, including airtight doors, pass boxes, dunk tanks, through-wall pipeline sealing devices, and sealed floor drains.”
A stainless steel microenvironment laboratory was built using similar technology in 2007, and was equipped with an inflatable airtight door, a mechanical compression pass box, airtight valves, and glass windows. The laboratory was tested by the National Center for Quality Supervision and Test of Building Engineering, and the results indicated that the laboratory met the airtightness requirements of a BSL-4 laboratory.
Over the past ten years, after numerous gaseous fumigation and sterilization experiments with formaldehyde, vaporized hydrogen peroxide, and chlorine dioxide, the microenvironment laboratory could still meet airtightness requirements of a BSL-4 laboratory.
The two institutes have been working on the engineering and testing for BSL-4 laboratories along with the three labs in China (Kunming, Wuhan and Harbin). They were involved in:
- stainless steel structure and containment walls
- air tightness
- life support system
- Directional air flow
- HEPA filters
Some of the recent publications on maximum containment laboratory design are follow:
- Disinfection efficiency of positive pressure respiratory protective hood using fumigation sterilization cabinet
- Disinfection of air exhaust & HEPA filters
- Development of biosafety equipment for high containment laboratory and for personal protection in China
- Development of a negative pressure hood for isolation and transportation of individual patient with respiratory infectious disease
The two institutions, the Institute of Medical Support Technology and National Bio-Protection Engineering Center of China, participated in the Research and development of airtight biosafety containment facility for stainless steel structures, published in 2018, in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity, whose editors’ in chief are Yuan Zhiming, director Wuhan BSL-4, WIV and Jianguo Xu of Beijing CDC.
The PLA Institute of Medical Support Technology was recipient of the second prize of the National Science and Technology Progress 2012 Award for “P3 and P4 Laboratory Biosafety Technology and Application” CNAS (2013), as per ref item 70 of Beijing’s 2012 National Science and Technology Awards.
In 2020, the institute registered a patent for an Animal carcass sterilization and hydrolysis processing equipment. The announcement explains that:
“the disinfection interface is set to ensure the safety of personnel and the environment during the maintenance work of the exhaust device such as the replacement of the high-efficiency filter, activated carbon filter or pipeline”:
which is typical of equipment for an A/BSL — 3 or A/BSL-4.
3. Tianjin University
Tianjin university is associated with two key bioengineering centers:
- The Center for Biosafety Research and Strategy (CBRS), noted above
- The Key Laboratory of System Bioengineering Ministry of Education
The CBRS has been accredited a “Strategic Research Base” by of the Ministry of Education of China and has for mission to meet the strategic, educational, and technological needs of national and global biosafety and biosecurity. (Management and Prospects of Biosafety Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases, doi: 10.11569/wcjd.v28.i21.1059)
It is can be compared to the John Hopkins Center for Health Security in the US.
In addition to bioengineering studies, those two institutions are also studying bioengineering strategy and dual use. See for instance Zhang Weiwen’s article “Thoughts on dual-use biotechnology progress and their biosafety implication” in the Dec 2018 issue of the Journal of Microbes and Infection (China) and the presentation mentioned below (Dec 3, 2018).
Synthetic Biology centre
It is also worth noting that Tianjin University had the first key laboratory of the Ministry of Education for engineering and synthetic biology research in China.
Track II engagement since 2018
Synthetic Biology has been a clear US biosecurity concern since at least 2016, when the US intelligence community placed gene editing on its list of potential weapons of mass destruction .
The development of synthetic biology in China is backed by a Chinese ‘Synthetic Biology National Key Program (2018–19)’ with at least 50 to 60 projects (see slide below). This development, with its potential DURC implications, then became a strong focus of US Track II activity in China starting in around 2018 .
Accordingly, there was a Track II engagement with the Tianjin University CBRS, involving the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, with dedicated workshops between Tianjin University (TJU) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU), and co-hosted conferences.
Tianjin University (TJU) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU) held two workshops on biosecurity in Tianjin in 2018.
Tianjin University (TJU) was invited to the first annual Global Forum on Scientific Advances Important to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, held in Geneva on Dec 3, 2018. On that occasion Zhang Weiwen, Professor, Laboratory of Synthetic Microbiology, at TJU did a presentation titled “Biotechnology innovation: progress, concerns and our recent efforts with governance” moderated by Gigi Gronvall (JHU).
On July 26, 2019, the JHU and TJU CBRS held a “Biosafety and Biosecurity in the Era of Synthetic Biology: Meeting the Challenges in China and the U.S.” workshop in Washington, D.C., as part of a US-China Synthetic Biology conference initiated by Tom Inglesby . The lead person of the Chinese delegation was Zhang Weiwen.
For a good summary of the Track II efforts at engaging China over the years, see the summary of the Stanford CISAC Conference call of Aug 2019 .
 Formerly the ‘Institute of Medical Equipment, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences’.
 The official purpose of the journal of Medical and Health Equipment is to “Face the army, face the grassroots, face the future, combine theory with practice, popularize and improve, serve the construction of military health equipment and serve the country’s medical equipment” (“面向军队,面向基层,面向未来,理论与实践结合,普及与提 高相结合,为军队卫生装备建设服务,为全国医疗器械服务”).
 The US intelligence community placed gene editing on its list of potential weapons of mass destruction in 2016. In July 2018 the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine followed through with a report entitled ‘Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology’.
 One good example is the Jan 8–10, 2019 ‘U.S. China Dialogue and Workshop on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety, Global Health Security and Responsible Conduct in the Use of Gene Editing in Viral Infectious Disease Research’ held in Harbin, China (city with an ABSL-4). It was the 4th such dialogue (after 2015, 2017 and 2018) but the first one to include ‘and Responsible Conduct in the Use of Gene Editing in Viral Infectious Disease Research’ in its description.
 For the summary of the worksop, attended amongst others by Tom Inglesby, James Le Duc, David Relman, Renee Wegrzyn on the US side and again Zhang Weiwen on the Chinese side, see https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/publications/biosafety-and-biosecurity-in-the-era-of-synthetic-biology/
On that occasion James LeDuc presentation on ‘Synthetic Biology’s Near-Term Opportunities and Challenges’ closely followed a commentary written by James LeDuc, signed by himself and Yuan Zhiming, and published the following month in Zhiming’s Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity.
 ’The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) formed the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) in 1980 as a permanent committee to bring the resources of the Academy to bear on critical problems of international security and arms control. […] CISAC’s security dialogues with Russia (since 1981), China (since 1988) and India (since 1999) allow the Committee to address technical and potentially sensitive issues in international security, arms control and disarmament even when oficial relations are strained. These “Track II” dialogues, built on a foundation of scientist-to-scientist interaction, allow the Committee to sustain links to heads of state, senior parliamentarians and military officers in an international network of science academies and organizations in many countries around the world.’
Related DRASTIC research
- BSL-4 laboratories in China, Kunming, Wuhan, Harbin
- Wuhan BSL-4: Project Overview
- Wuhan BSL-4: Engineering Review
- BSL Laboratories in Wuhan and their roles in coronaviruses research