Evaluation of the Lab Escape risk by the Chinese authorities

Yang Zhanqiu’s evaluation of the risk in Chinese BSL labs (16th Feb 2020):

Yang Zhanqiu, a deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, was recently quoted by the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper considered as strongly aligned with the government [52]. The article shows a clear understanding of the risks:

‘Notice on Strengthening the Biosafety Management of Pathogenic Microorganism Laboratories’ (9th Feb 2020)

On the 9th Feb 2020, 6 government offices (of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science and Technology, the National Health Commission, the Customs Administration, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences together issued a notice detailing new rules to strengthen the security of Chinese bio-labs [58].

  • cooperation in the review of new, developed or expanded BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs
  • increased sharing of information relative to BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs across departments
  • improved regulation of the attributions of authorisations for experimental activities
  • suspension of any lab activity if the lab cannot meet the approval or review criteria

Yuan Zhiming’s evaluation of the risk in Chinese BSL-2 and BSL-3 labs (Oct 2019):

A good introduction to the very real risk of a lab related accident is provided by Yuan Zhiming — the director of the WIV (the Wuhan P4 lab) and a top CCP representative there. In October 2019, the Journal of Biosecurity and Biosafety published an article by Y. Zhiming [59] that highlighted major structural issues with Chinese labs, including lack of funding, lack of training, lack of standard operating procedures:

Yuan Zhiming & al evaluation of the risk in Chinese BSL labs (2016):

This 2019 assessment above essentially repeats the one offered in a 2016 paper [60] co-authored by Yuan Zhiming (with an additional insight on issues at the BSL-4), thus showing perduring chronic issues:

Mainstream article in the China Daily mentioning the risk of working with dangerous pathogens in labs (2015):

Discussing the challenges faced by China in its biosafety laboratories was not just limited to a circle of experts. The China Daily, an English language newspaper owned by the CCP and often used as a guide to Chinese government policy, published an article in February 2015 titled ‘Be ready to fight potential risks from P4 lab’ [61].

Chinese CDC (Beijing) review of general issues with the construction and operation of BSL-3 labs in China (2014):

Part 3 of a 2014 review by the Chinese CDC of general issues with construction and operation of BSL-3s [63] offers a very pointed discussions of some structural issues:

References:

[52] Liu Caiyu and Leng Shumai (quoting Yang Zhanqiu), “Biosafety guidelines issued to fix chronic management loopholes at virus labs,” Global Times, Feb 16, 2020. Accessed at https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1179747.shtml

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.

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 can count lab-complexes in the same building. In this case the 5 individual BSL-3 labs at the NBL-3 should be counted as one.

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.

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

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:
  • 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.
  • Yuan Zhiming [59] gives a detailed count as of end 2013:
  • At least 30 [A]BSL-3 laboratories built and more 10 planned, based on respondents to a Nov 2013 survey [63].
  • ‘In addition, as of August 31, 2013, there were 42 BSL-3 laboratories in China’, as per 2016 paper co-authored by Yuan Zhiming [60].

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).

List of BSL-3 Labs in China as of August 2020

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].

References:

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

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Gilles Demaneuf

Gilles Demaneuf

Opinions, analyses and views expressed are purely mine and should not in any way be characterised as representing any institution.