BSL-4 laboratories in China: Kunming, Wuhan, Harbin
1. BSL-4 labs in China (2020): built ones and projected ones
The BSL-4 construction program started in China after SARS outbreak in 2003, and was motivated by a desire to fight future biological threats (natural, bio wars or terrorism). In 2004, a new standard was established GB19489–2004 “General Requirements for Laboratory Biosafety”, revised in 2008.
1.1 Official Narrative
During a WHO Consultative Meeting on High/Maximum Containment (Biosafety Level 4) Laboratories Networking, (Lyon, France, 13–15 December 2017), it was disclosed that China had built two BSL-4 labs, one in Wuhan and one in Harbin, and was planning a third one in Beijing.
The three BSL-4 mentioned during that WHO meeting were:
- Wuhan Institute of Virology BSL-4:
This Chinese Academy of Sciences lab was built in cooperation with France, with architects TJ Archi and Altergis and Clima+ who provided the engineering drawings in 2008, revised in 2010. China customised many aspects of the technology.
Construction began in 2011 and finished in January 2015, then, trial operation was authorized in 2017, before official operation in January 2018.
- Harbin Veterinary Research Institute ABSL-4:
Construction of this Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences lab was completed in December 2016, with accreditation and operation start in 2018.
In that WHO meeting, it was stated Harbin ABSL-4 was the only facility capable of large animal BSL-4 studies.
- Chinese CDC Beijing BSL-4: listed as planned, but no information was given to the WHO.
A third BSL-4 lab, not mentioned in this WHO meeting, existed at that time: the Institute of Medical Biology ABSL-4 in Kunming, which is within the remit of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. This ABSL-4 is designed for experiments on dangerous pathogens with large primates (monkeys, most suitable for human-like experiments).
The the construction of the various buildings (P3, etc) started in 2008 including the future P4 building which was well underway in satellite pictures from 2009.
- National Kunming High-level Biosafety Primate Experimental Center Project Holds Groundbreaking Ceremony
- Brief Introduction to the National Kunming High-level Biosafety Primate Experimental Center Project,
- The Ministry of Health went to our P3P4 laboratory to convene a high-level biosafety laboratory .
Hence in 2018, China had three civil BSL-4 laboratories, for different pathogen research vectors:
- Kunming: BSL-4 of the Institute of Medical Biology, primates
- Rather confidential lab
- The P4 building was erected back in 2009 .
- Possibly the first P4 to be in operation in China — may also have run at 3.5 for a while.
- The Kunming Primate Research Centre may have be part of the testing platform for domestic technologies which were eventually used during the construction of the Wuhan P4.
- Wuhan: BSL-4 of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, rodents & bats
- Public figure and officially the first P4.
- Used a lot for cooperation with the West.
- French blue-prints with many customisations that had been tested over the previous 10 years (such as full aluminium encasing with domestic welding technology)
- Does not seem very active at P4.
- Harbin: BSL-4 of the Harbin Institute of Veterinary Medicine, large-scale livestock
- Came in operation a bit after Wuhan BSL-4.
These three BSL-4 were mentioned in this Sohu article, which contains a complete description of the biosafety laboratories of Harbin Institute of Veterinary Medicine: Research on the design and construction of the domestically produced biosafety level four laboratory
The three constructed laboratories in China were also mentioned during the Second China-U.S. Workshop on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety and Global Health Security in May 2017.
They were again mentioned during the Track II conference in Harbin in 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 (in bold additional wording compared to the 3 previous such conferences, which were Beijing Sep 29–30 2015, Wuhan May 17–19 2017 and UTMB Galveston Jan 16–18 2018)
1.3 Pecking order
We note that the first three BSL-4 in China were all directly sponsored by branches of the Academy of Sciences. None of them is a CDC lab.It is only fairly recently that there have been mentions of building some CDC BSL-4 lab in Beijing and maybe Guangzhou.
This reflects the simple reality that the CDC is rather secondary in the national pecking order, and must deal with funding and bureaucratic issues. Its role is more one of consultant to local authorities.
“It does not have the authority to publish information about outbreaks or take legal action to control them. Instead, these powers lie with the National Health Commission.
Rather than direct the response, the China CDC can only collaborate with the local health authorities, who are the main actors during an outbreak. For example, the China CDC will provide technical guidance to provincial, prefectural, or county-level CDCs. But these usually report to their local health commissions, which fund and staff them, and which are subject to the control of local governments, who may have differing priorities in a crisis.”
source: Sixth Tone (China)
In that respect we may also wonder why there is no military lab built or programmed, since the PLA is right at the top of the power and budget hierarchy in China. Before the first Chinese BSL-4 were built, some Western intelligence services suspected that many P3 were effectively controlled by the PLA. Whether this is the case or not, and whether this now extends to the BSL-4s, is rather difficult to say. What is however clear is that the system of military-civil fusion (MCF)  is being pursued in these labs, which make it (intentionally to some extent) difficult to draw a clear distinction between strict military and civilian controls.
What is also attested is that the PLA has long been a pioneer in BSL-engineering via the PLA Institute of Medical Support and Technology in Tianjin and took part in the Wuhan design and construction. This is not necessarily exceptional, especially in China where the PLA is a realm within the realm and often gets some privileged economic and business accesses.
In the end, short of finding a Chinese BSL-4 lab explicitly under the administration of the military (as for instance with the only (cabinet) BSL-4 in Taiwan, the IPMR built with the help of France in the 1980s), trying to think in terms of a clear cut separation between military vs. civilian oversight is simply not that well adapted to the Chinese reality, without having to consider any intent.
1.4 Looking ahead (2025 and further)
1. An FOI’d e-mail from early January 2019 from James Le Duc (UTMB) mentioned that the Chinese CDC was hopping to build a new BSL-4, possibly in South China:
2. Yuan Zhiming’s article below, published in the (WIV) Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity in Sep 2019 (received May 2019), listed all the 3 existing (A)BSL-4 labs in China, with their respective focus, and mentioned some possible further development to 2025 and after, with a an emphasis on South, East and North West China.
4.1. Deployment and implementation of the national high-level biosafety laboratory program
Considering regional distribution and actual demand, especially in regions that are facing increased domestic and international challenges of fatal infectious diseases, the operation of 5–7 BSL-4 laboratories has been scheduled.
- In Harbin, Heilongjiang province, The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences will oversee operations of a comprehensive research platform on important animal zoonotic infectious diseases;
- in Southwestern China, a high-level biosafety facility jointly built by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming, Yunnan Province, will focus on non-human primate infection experiments.
- The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory (NBL, Wuhan), located in the Hubei Province in central China, will function as a comprehensive research and international cooperation platform for highly pathogenic microorganisms and at the same time will aim to be a reference laboratory for the World Health Organization.
- In Northern China, the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention will build a high-level BSL as a comprehensive platform for research on prevention and control of infectious diseases.
- Thereafter, the construction of other maximum biocontainment facilities in South, East, and Northwest China will be considered in accordance with domestic and international demands.
Source: Current status and future challenges of high-level biosafety laboratories in China, Sep 2019, Yuan Zhiming.
The Northern China lab mentioned is presented as a decision already taken, not as a possible project. It may refer to the Beijing lab mentioned in 2017 during the WHO Consultative Meeting on High/Maximum Containment (Biosafety Level 4) Laboratories Networking. It may be that the location has moved from Beijing to a bit further North, which would make sense given the potential risk of building such a lab in a city of 21 mln people which is also the political capital.
With the 3 (A)BSL-4s already build by 2019, that’s a total of 4 (A)BSL-4s in the pipeline or delivered. So one to three more are needed to reach the goal of 5–7 by 2025, as stated in the ‘High-level biosafety laboratory system construction plan for 2016-2025’.
3. A May 2019 CDC presentation by the editor-in-chief of the (CDC) Biosafety & Health journal also contains an interesting slide (#50) which is broadly in line with Yuan Zhiming’s article (received May 2019):
On that slide a few stars have been sprinkled liberally in the spirit of ‘Thereafter [post 2025], the construction of other maximum biocontainment facilities in South, East, and Northwest China will be considered in accordance with domestic and international demands’, especially in North-West China, with also an additional star close to Harbin and another additional one in Yunnan.
2. Kunming National Primate Research Centre (ABSL-4)
This is a large complex, with 2 ABSL-4 labs. Alongside the ABSL-4s, there are 2 ABSL-3 and 2 ABSL-2 labs.
According to Longding Liu (Institute of Medical Biology Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences), in a way similar to the Harbin ABSL 4 Laboratory, the Kunming Institute of Medical Biology ABSL 4 lab was created after SARS in 2004 “to focus on basic research to combat animal and human disease”
2.2 Construction and Operation
The construction of Kunming ABSL-4 started in 2008 including the P4 building. That is the year the WIV placed order with French companies for the design of Wuhan BSL-4.
Kunming ABSL-4 planning was effectively 3 years ahead of Wuhan and Harbin’s.
An article on the site of the Institute of Medical Biology Chinese Academy of Medical Science (IMBCAMS, based in Kunming), dated 17 Dec 2012, mentions the construction at the time of the P3/P4 laboratories of the Kunming National Primate Centre.
The Symposium ended up with a visit of the P3/P4 laboratory under construction.
As explained in section 2.5, the US trained Kunming staff in P4 operations in 2013–14.
Additionally the meeting report of the ‘Second China-U.S. Workshop on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety and Global Health Security’ held in Wuhan in May 2017, it is clear that the lab was finished by that time and that they had the engineering and maintenance staff.
It is therefore quite possible that the lab operated at P3.5 for a while, if not P4, before getting its actual certification in Q4 2019 (one year after Wuhan P4 got certified). In that sense the later Frenco-Chinese project in Wuhan may have been intended to allow China to acquire or validate some key technologies but also to design proper certification processes.
Note that the Jan 2020 email below from David Franz to James LeDuc mentioned with some irony the visits to the now ‘new’ Kunming BSL-4 back in 2012–13:
Ca. 2012–2013. Jim and Dave attended meeting in Wuhan. Met Zhiming and post-doc who trained in Galveston. Jim and Dave visit Kunming ‘new’ CAMS BSL-4 Lab
Source: FOIA drop, email from David Franz to James Le Duc, 23 Jan 2020
This ‘new’ old BSL-4 lab simply reflects the fact that it was kept out of the public limelight, as further illustrated in an Ping Chen FOI’d email by Ping Chen (NIH/NIAID) of May 2018, where the WIV is described at the ‘only publicly known P4 lab’ in China (see also section 3 below).
2.3 Potential Testing Platform.
‘Research and development of airtight biosafety containment facility for stainless steel structures’ by Zhang et al (2019) describes the Chinese research effort towards BSL-4 aluminium encasing.
A first microenvironment laboratory was built in 2007. It went through 10 years of corrosion and aging tests.
That microenvironment laboratory was possibly in Tianjin (as most of the authors of Zhang et al were based in Tianjin). As the Kunming Primate Research Centre buildings were getting ready by 2009 and the 2019 article mentions 10 years, it is also possible that Kunming hosted such a test laboratory.
2.6 Cooperation with the US under Track II
BSL-4 Training was provided by the US in 2014 and 2015, specifically via the UTMB Galveston laboratory of Le Duc, one of the main actor in the Track II cooperation with China.
Cooperation under Track II started actually in 2012, spearheaded by the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC, under the US National Academy of Sciences). See email below from David Franz to James Le Duc on Jan 2020, discussing CISAC Engagements in China (‘Dave’ refers to David Franz, and ‘Jim’ to James Le Duc from UTMB Galveston):
In September 2014, Dr Curtis Klages (a veterinarian UTMB) and Miguel Grimaldo (also from UTMB) were invited to review the animal facilities at IMB in Kunming and advise on BSL-4 technical specifications and performance requirements. They were also asked to provide training on laboratory management, facility operations and facility personnel training, which they did.
Grant report W81XWH-11–2–0148 (Aug 2014) for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (Fort Detrick):
Gant report W81XWH-11–2–0148 (Oct 2016) for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (Fort Detrick)
We also note that around October 2016, James Le Duc and David Franz visited both the Kunming ABSL-4 and the Wuhan BSL-4, in preparation for the ‘Wuhan China-U.S. Workshop on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety and Global Health Security’ held in May 2017.
b. non-cooperation with the US
Back in mid-2019 when James Le Duc was trying to formalize the annual Track II CAS-NAS Workshop, Kunming bowed out, likely on orders from the Party Secretary appointed by Beijing. The director of the Kunming Institute (Dr. Qihan Li) simply did not respond.
3. Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory ([A]BSL-4)
The WIV research centre is originally located at the older Wuchang site (Xiaohongshan), but WIV decided to build its new laboratory complex, with BSL-2, 3 and 4, an animal building and a research centre to the south of the city, on the same campus used by the Sinopharm Wuhan Institute of Biological Products (WIBP, Vaccines), so as to have a complete research and production platform.
The BSL-4 was built between 2011 and 2015, at the same time as the relocation of the WIBP from its riverside central location in Wuchang between 2009 and 2016. It was fully certified in 2018.
The WIV is effectively the public face of China’s engagement with the West and an important center for biosafety training. While work on the Kunming BSL-4 started before the Wuhan BSL-4, and finished roughly at the same time, with certification also at the same time as the Wuhan BSL-4, the WIV was pushed officially as the only (A)BSL-4 in China at the time.
Chen Ping put it nicely in this FOI’d email, calling it the ‘only publicly known’ P4 in China in 2018:
For more details see:
4. Harbin National Biosafety Laboratory (ABSL-4)
The National High-Level Biosafety Laboratory for Animal Disease Prevention and Control can use conventional experimental animals including horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, rats, and monkeys to carry out Ebola virus, Nipah virus in the “List of Pathogenic Microorganisms of Human Infection”.
Please refer to the article in one supplier website (AAF China; suppliers of biosafety equipment, including HEPA filters): [Biosafety protection] Harbin Animal Research-an aircraft carrier in the field of biosafety protection
5. Chinese biocontainment labs and Track II efforts
Track II background
Trac II efforts regarding the biosafety of Chinese labs and the research that may be conducted there (including ethical considerations), followed closely the development of biotechnologies in China, punctuated by the construction of the first 3 Chinese BSL-4, with yet another acceleration in 2018 as synthetic biology came to the fore.
One may also appreciate these efforts in relation to the strategic policy of Military-Civil Fusion sponsored by Xi Jinping soon after he became Chinese leader , and with some potentially concerning central determination to forge through with research of interest, whatever the obstacles.
The Track II efforts involved mostly:
- The Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC, under the US National Academy of Sciences). Spearheaded by James LeDuc and David Franz.
- The US Program for Biomedical Research Cooperation, under which the US NIH and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) jointly fund high-priority research projects.
- The Environment, Science, Technology, and Health (ESTH) section of the US Embassy in Beijing. Chen Ping (director of NIAID Office in China and based at the U.S. embassy in Beijing) was acting as main contact with the ESTH .
The near annual CAS-NAS Workshops played a key role in the Track II effort to address potential biosafety and biosecurity risks from the developments in China. This was an effort coordinated by CISAC.
- 2015 Sep 29–30 Beijing CAS-NAS Workshop on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety and Global Health Security
- 2016 Oct. On a trip sponsored by the NAS, in preparation of the 2017 Wuhan China-US Workshop, James Le Duc and David Franz visited the Kunming ABSL-4 and the Wuhan BSL-4 (both nearing operational status), had discussions with China CDC in Beijing and participated to the 7th International Symposium on Emerging Viral Diseases in Wuhan.
- 2017 May 17–19, Wuhan China-U.S. Workshop on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety and Global Health Security
- 2018 Jan 16–18 UTMB Galveston US-China dialogue on the Challenges of Emerging Infections, Laboratory Safety and Global Health Security
- 2019 Jan 8–10 Harbin 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 [words in italic were added that year]
- Q4 2019/ Q1 2020 planned meeting in Kunming (CAMS BSL-4), switched to Wuhan (CAS BSL-4) as Kunming went into radio silence and would not answer, then to Huanggang for April 2020. Planned renewed focus on the risk of Gene Editing in Viral Infectious Disease Research.
When planning the 2020 Wuhan/Huanggang meeting, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) suggested to the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to formalize these workshops via a Memorandum of Understanding.
TJU — JHU workshops on biosecurity
To these CAS-NAS workshops, one should also include the recent Track II meetings in Tianjin in 2018 in the form of two workshops on biosecurity held by Tianjin University (TJU) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU). Tianjin which is very important as a centre of biosecurity equipment design and biosecurity policy, particularly through the Tianjin University Center for Biosafety Research and Strategy (CBRS), the Chinese equivalent of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Tianjin also hosts the Key Laboratory of System Bioengineering Ministry of Education, which is important in the context of the Chinese ‘Synthetic Biology National Key Program (2018–19)’ with at least 50 to 60 projects. This national program also largely explains the US concerns about Gene Editing and Synthetic Biology in China at that time. 
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 .
Related DRASTIC research
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- Biosafety Laboratories in Wuhan, China
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 The shell itself was finished in 2009 as can be seen from satellite images. It does not mean that the installation inside were ready. Once the shell is ready (‘clos de voûte’ in French engineering terms), the main structural work is finished, but the actual lab rooms still have to be built and equipped.
 The Military-Civil Fusion (MCF, 军民融合) was first formulated under the 11th Five Year Plan (FYP) of 2006–2010, as a rupture from the previous Civilian-Military Integration (CMI) which was more akin to the American model.
Whereas America’s CMI is “cooperation between government and commercial facilities in research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and/or maintenance operations”, China’s MCF strategy is a state-led, state-directed program and plan to leverage all levers of state and commercial power to strengthen and support the PLA.
This includes (1) fusing the China’s defence industrial base and its civilian technology and industrial base; (2) integrating and leveraging science and technology innovations across military and civilian sectors; (3) cultivating talent and blending military and civilian expertise and knowledge; (4) building military requirements into civilian infrastructure and leveraging civilian construction for military purposes.
In 2007, Party officials publicly noted the change from “integration” to “fusion” was not merely cosmetic, but broadened the scope to include all available economic resources in the promotion of the defense industry.
The MCF started taking off around 2013–14, just after Xi Jinping became Chinese leader. In March 2015, Xi elevated the MCF into a national strategy (把军民融合发展上升为国 家 战略) by transitioning it from “early-state fusion” to “deep fusion”, as a “move to rejuvenate the nation and a strategy to strengthen the armed forces”.
The 13th Five-Year Special Plan for Military-Civilian Integration Development (2016–2020) soon highlighted biology as a priority of China’s national strategy of MCF. To help implement the MCF strategy, the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development (中央军民融合发展委 员) was then set up in January 2017, with Xi Jinping as the head.
Concurrently, the 2017 edition of Science of Military Strategy (战略学) — an authoritative textbook published by the PLA’s National Defense University — has introduced a new section on “biology as a domain of military struggle.”
 James Le Duc history of engagement with China goes back to the 80s. In 1986 James Le Duc and James Meegan ‘spent the year on and off in Wuhan setting up a virology lab and studying Hantavirus infections and treating patients with ribavirin’, adding that ‘We trained many, and some later came to the States. I think that helped it on its way to becoming a center for virology’ (see Meegan’s FOI’d email).
That research on hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS, caused by the Hantavirus), conducted at Hubei Medical College in Wuhan, is attested in James Le Duc CV and in USAMRIID 1987 annual report (p. 78 and 90 of the PDF). This was only 7 years after President Carter and Premier Deng Xiaoping signed the landmark U.S. China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement.
 For more details about the importance of Tianjin to biosecurity and biosafety concerns, see https://gillesdemaneuf.medium.com/bsl-4-biosafety-engineering-researches-in-tianjin-china-ba5d7fe3cc6d.
 ’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.’