BSL Laboratories in Wuhan and their roles in coronaviruses research

Gilles Demaneuf
10 min readApr 27, 2022

A study by the DRASTIC collective

In 2019 in Wuhan, there were nine sites with biosafety laboratories of level 2 (BSL-2) and above, including six sites with BSL-3 laboratories and one site with a BSL-4 laboratory.

This number is not abnormal for a city of about 10 million inhabitants. However, the creation of these labs is recent. The constructions of the BSL-3 laboratories in Wuhan have been, and still is, the subject of significant and rapid development.

Overview of BSL labs in Wuhan

Note: Please see DRASTIC interactive map for the exact location of these labs.

This effort started after the SARS epidemic: the first BSL-3s in Wuhan were built by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products (WIBP) in 2003 with an initial focus on developing a SARS vaccine. The WIBP BSL-3 labs were followed between 2006 and 2010 by the BSL-3 laboratories of Wuhan University, Huazhong Agricultural University and Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Then between 2010 and 2015 came the BSL-3 of the Hubei Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (Hubei CDC), as well as the new site of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in the south of the city, on the Zhengdian site (Jiangxia district). In addition, on this last site a BSL-4 was put into service in 2018 and a large research center is still under construction in 2020.

Since 2020, other BSL-3 laboratories have been planned for the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, Wuhan CDC and Huazhong University of Agriculture.

Most of these institutions were studying coronaviruses to some degree. In particular the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Wuhan University, and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products were pioneers in the fight against the 2003 SARS epidemic, vaccine development, and the study of origin of the virus.

Overview of BSL labs in Wuhan

Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV):
Since the SARS epidemic, the WIV has never stopped studying SARS-like viruses. One of his achievements, under the leadership of Shi Zheng Li, was the 2017 identification of a bat colony in Yunnan with viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-1, thus confirming the likely bat-origin of the virus.

Zhengdian gold Industrial park site in Jiangxia district, Wuhan: Wuhan Institute of Virology shown in red, near the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products (vaccine production) shown in green.

The coronavirus research of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), with its bat sampling collection campaigns, its ambition to find how these viruses are transmitted from animals to humans, and its role in the prevention against SARS — like viruses outbreaks, have been the subject of many public reports which we shall not repeat here.

January 2017, WIV BSL-4 starts a trial period

In 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had 325 students and 268 employees and accroos its two sites:

  • The site of Xiaohongshan Park (BSL-2, ABSL-2, BSL-3, ABSL-3) in the district of Wuchang and close to the offices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
  • The site of Zhengdian Gold Industrial park (see annotated photo), south of the city in the district of Jiangxia. This center contains three main buildings, the BSL-2 and 3 laboratory building which dates from 2010, the animal facility commissioned in 2012, and the BSL-4 national high biosecurity laboratory accredited in 2018 , and which was already operating in trial phase from 2017 as shown in the WIV Newsletter January 2017 announcement.
The two sites of the Wuhan Institute of Virology

On the site of Zhengdian Gold Industrial Park in Jiangxia, between 2017 and 2021 a large research center (red buildings on the above picture) was constructed, with some temporary site facilities (bleu bungalows) a few meters from the laboratories.

As the research center in Jiangxia was being constructed, the operational research center for Jinxia was the one of the other site at Xiahongshan Park in Wuchang. Researchers based in Xiaohongshan Park who were using the laboratories at the Zhengdian Gold Industrial Park site often had to commute between the two sites to go from research centre to labs.

Huazhong Agricultural University (HZAU):
This Huazhong Agricultural University holds an ABSL-3 in two buildings, A and B, at the heart of the campus.

In March 2019, a researcher affiliated with HZAU participated in the study published in Nature “Decline of transmissible gastroenteritis virus and its complex evolutionary relationship with porcine respiratory coronavirus in the United States” with the diagnostic laboratory from Kansas Veterinary College. The study focuses on the transmissible gastroenteritis coronavirus TGEV .

In June 2019, HZAU filed patent CN110215456A “cat coronavirus inhibitor composition”. In 2019, HZAU did a feasibility study for an additional ABSL-3 laboratory .

Building A, Huazhong Agricultural University ABSL-3

Hubei animal CDC:
The HZAU location is close to the complex of BSL-2, BSL-3 and ABSL-3 laboratories of the Hubei Animal Disease Prevention and Control Center (Hubei animal CDC).

This center is in fact located to the north-west of HZAU. The CDC does some diagnoses and studies, but published few research artciles. Some rare publications show cooperation between HZAU and Hubei animal CDC. (Coexistence of multiple genotypes of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus with novel mutant S genes in the Hubei Province of China in 2016 ), which shows a collaboration between these two institutions on PEDV, a type of α-CoV coronavirus.

Entrance to Hubei Animal Disease Prevention and Control Center, Wuhan

Hubei CDC:
To the North-East of the Hubei Animal CDC building one can find the Hubei CDC building, on the extension of metro line 2. This provincial CDC building has a BSL-3 laboratory.

Important: This Hubei CDC building is not not to be confused with Hubei Animal CDC next to HZAU.

Entrance to Hubei CDC Inspection Buildings
Entrance of the Hubei CDC complex in 2019

Wuhan University:
Top the West of the Hubei CDC, one can find another university which is involved in coronavirus studies: the Wuhan University.

With more than 50,000 students, this university is a very important one. It has a faculty of medical sciences which has several laboratories including a virology laboratory, an animal modeling institute (IMA Institute of Model Animal) and an ABSL-3 laboratory, as well as three hospitals which have their own laboratories.

The ABSL-3 is next to the Zhongnan Hospital, one of the hospitals of Wuhan University. It is located in the north of the city, not far from WIV Xiaohongshan park.

View from the stadium of the ABSL-3 laboratory at Wuhan University and the Animal Modeling Institute.
Wuhan University ABSL-3 laboratory service door, and its location adjacent to the Zhongnan hospital stadium

Wuhan University (WHU) was a pioneer in SARS vaccine research in 2003–2004, and produced studies (Immunogenicity, Safety, and Protective Efficacy of an Inactivated SARS-associated Coronavirus Vaccine in Rhesus Monkeys) and one still finds in the Chinese press articles extolling the heroism of the University, its scientists and its monkeys (having implicated monkeys in the experiments of vaccines, a stele is dedicated to these monkeys sacrificed for science: “ Explore the Institute of Model Animals of Wuhan University, which was once one of the battlefields against SARS).

In 2009, Guo Deyin from Wuhan University discovered a genetic code for SARS (Guo was professor of virology at WHU, dean of the school of medical sciences, before moving to Sun Yatsen University in 2016; he keeps however a chair at Wuhan University), and continues to work on vaccines (A novel strategy to generate virus vaccines with expanded genetic codes 2017).

From 2017, we find WHU affiliated to several studies on coronaviruses; we see, for example, a study on the spike proteins of the coronavirus SARS and MERS (spike glycoproteins reveal the dynamic receptor binding domains; nature 2017) carried out by George Gao of the Beijing Institute of Microbiology.

We also find publications of experiments inoculation of vaccine against SARS on 16 rhesus macaques in the ABSL-3 laboratory (Evaluation of Antibody-Dependent Enhancement of SARS-CoV Infection in Rhesus Macaques Immunized with an Inactivated SARS-CoV Vaccine ).

Wuhan CDC Center BSL-2:
The CDC has national, provincial and city organisations. Beyond building of the provincial (Hubei) CDC, Wuhan also hosts the city CDC.
The Wuhan CDC moved from its previous building to a new location less than 300m in straight line from the South China Seafood Market in Oct/Nov 2019.

New Wuhan CDC building near Huanan market;
Wuhan CDC Center BSL-2

It is not clear whether the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) properly addressed the fact that this new building was built in a very populated area, and so close to the main Wuhan wet market.

Research at the Wuhan CDC and Hubei CDC:
Prevention of SARS and SARS-like viruses is one of the goals of the China Center for Infectious Disease Prevention (CDC).

In early 2018, WHO released a list of priority diseases that included SARS as well as another disease, disease X. As explained on the WHO website, “Disease X represents a serious international epidemic that could be caused by a currently unknown pathogen ”.

In a publication of early February 2020, Dr Shi said of disease X: “At that time, we believed that the first Disease X could be a transmissible infectious disease caused by a novel coronavirus originated from bats. Accordingly, the Wuhan labs directed their research towards a disease X of the SARS type” (The First Disease X is Caused by a Highly Transmissible Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus ).

The China CDC in particular prioritized research on epidemic assessment and SARS prevention (for example, the Chinese GVN center of excellence, Global Virus Network, writes on its website: “CCDC focuses national attention on the Evaluation of the epidemic characteristic and prevention of SARS in China”.

The CDC in Wuhan has several centers including the Hubei CDC, Hubei animal CDC, Wuhan CDC, Wuhan animal CDC. The CDC does do much publication in scientific journals compared for instance to the WIV. It nevertheless is very active in sample collection and at raising public awareness.

Some press articles explain the involvement of the Wuhan CDC in collecting bats or samples from bats and studying them as part of SARS research and prevention. A story has also been reported in the press: that of Tian Junhua “ bat hunter”, and his misadventures (Tian Junhua isolated himself for 15 days for fear of a coronavirus infection by bats). There are also videos showing Wuhan CDC researchers hunting bats for SARS control.

Some new Wuhan CDC facilities, including a BSL-2 test laboratory, were built between 2016 and 2019, put into operation in 2019, at 288 Machang road in Wuhan at 280 meters from the Huanan market in a crowded area of the city. A new project was approved in 2020 for the construction of another Wuhan CDC center, with BSL-3 laboratories, located on the southwestern outskirts of the city.

The large red star shows the location of Wuhan CDC’s new project, according to the September 2020 report, Zonaland consulting for Wuhan CDC

The environmental report for the new project reveals that Wuhan CDC’s existing lab was hastily used even before it was approved. The reports insists that the new center has the necessary partitions and separate ventilations dedicated to the laboratories. The new project is equipped with BSL-2, BSL-3 laboratories, animal facilities and a dedicated wastewater treatment system.

Wuhan Institute of Biological Products:
The Wuhan Institute of Biological Products is an affiliate of China National Biotechnology Company, part of the Sinopharm group, and produces vaccines (DTP, Japanese encephalitis, Enterovirus 71, Typhoid, Tetanus, etc.).

Wuhan Institute of Biological Products in 2016; behind on the left are the laboratories of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

This company was trying to developed a vaccine against SARS in 2004, which passed phase 1. The company is the only one of the group to have developed from 2003 BSL-3 laboratories and large animal buildings for the studies and development of a SARS vaccine. The company moved between 2009 and 2016 from its old site in Wuchang (along the Yangtze river in the city center), to the Zhengdian Gold Industrial park site next to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in the Jiangxia district (except the employees residential quarters that remains in Wuchang, implying that employees commute between Wuchang and Jiangxia site).

Its vaccine building was built at the same time as the BSL-4 and 200 meters from it. On this site, in addition to the vaccine and blood products buildings, the company owns three animal buildings , and a vaccine research building. The animal buildings are for both animal breeding for vaccine productions, and for laboratory animals.

In 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products published a study on methods of neutralization of SARS and MERS on the basis of pseudoviruses (neutralization testing), which presupposes ongoing research into these diseases with immunology testing on animals, by them or a client of theirs, in laboratories below BSL-3 (BSL-2). In 2020, the company was developing a vaccine against COVID-19 in cooperation with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The Wuhan Institute of Biological Products was doing major maintenance work in 2019, in particular on the drainage, the wastewater treatment plant, and the waterproofing repairs of animal testing laboratories. This work may have been the consequence of the damages caused by the torrential rain of July 2016 in Wuhan. Jiangxia district has been the most affected (733mm).

In 2020, the institute was also undertaking new major projects such as the construction of an influenza vaccine workshop, and the construction of BSL-3 laboratories for the COVID-19 vaccine.
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Gilles Demaneuf

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