Wuhan BSL-4: Project Overview

WARNING

This presentation is about the WIV P4 lab, its commissioning, engineering and delivery.
Please do not interpret this as suggesting that a lab leak scenario may have involved the P4.
As we know, all BatCoV work in Wuhan was done in P2 and P3 labs, across multiple sites (WIV Zhengdian and Xiaohongshan, Wuhan Uni, CDC labs, etc). Authorisation to use the P4 for coronavirus research was not actually granted until after the outbreak — until then it was purely a P2 / P3 pathogen. See this presentation for the Wuhan labs of interest.

1. Introduction

The Wuhan BSL-4 was built under a Sino-French cooperation initiative on the Zhengdian site of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). With USD 42 million eventually spent on it the project went over twice its initial budget. The 14 years it took to complete the project were also more than twice what was initially planned.

Initial design view of the Wuhan BSL-4 (left, Sino-French project), with BSL-2 & 3 (right, Chinese project)

2. Design and Construction Timeline

The Wuhan BSL-4 lab feasibility study started in 2004. Engineering design followed from 2006 to 2010 and construction from 2011 to 2015. The lab qualification process started in 2016, and the BSL-4 lab became operational (for a first list of pathogens) in January 2018.

Wuhan BSL-4 design , construction and qualification timeline

3. Cost Estimate and Budget

The BSL-4 overall surface is around 3,000 square meters gross area. Considering an estimate of construction cost of USD 13,000 per square meter (2008 US reference costs), the Wuhan BSL-4 construction cost should come in at around USD 38 mln for a US 2008 basis.[3]

4. French Companies involved

Four main French companies participated to the design, procurement services of the equipment and supervision of the BSL-4 construction. These companies were RTV Archi, ClimaPlus, Altergis and Bureau Veritas.

  • ClimaPlus is an air conditioning company that filed for bankruptcy in 2015, at the end of the BSL-4 construction, and was dissolved in 2018. This bankruptcy may have been related to the Wuhan BSL-4 project. After its bankruptcy in 2015, ClimaPlus president (Thierry Morand) created a new company named Gopura Asia that was able to regain some of the ClimaPlus business in Asia.
  • Altergis is an electricity systems company that was bought by Veolia in 2015 at the end of the BSL-4 construction. It worked with TJ Archi on the extension of the Lyon BSL-4.
  • RTV Archi (Rivollier, Tourret, Valentin) is an architectural company based in Lyon, with some good experience of designing BSL facilities. It changed ownership early in the project and became TJ Archi (Partners: Tourret, Jonery). The company requested an extra EUR 1,686,407 during the project (Wang & Wang, 2018).
  • Bureau Veritas (BV) supported the international procurement of critical equipment. BV requested an extra 1.5 million yuan (equivalent to 200,000 USD) (Wang & Wang, 2018). BV is an international company with good financial stability and a turnover of 4,6 billion euros in 2020, thus not at risk at all on such a project.
Cross section representation, with logo of the three main French companies

5. Practical Difficulties

Different Engineering Approaches

The French design and construction ways for such complex project are rather different from the Chinese ways. French engineering companies work as “Maîtres d’oeuvre”, meaning that they do the architectural design and then supervise the procurement and construction which are directly subcontracted by the project owner (the WIV here acting for the Chinese Academy of Science). The French construction companies also do the detail design (DD) beyond the construction.

Conflicting Objectives

It is clear that the Chinese side was determined to produce its very own revised set of blueprints so as to be able to validate homegrown technologies developed in test labs since 2007. As we explain more in details in another Medium article:

  • The French engineering side expected minimal changes to its blueprints, little improvisation, careful construction involving some French companies (or at least Chinese companies that the French side would be comfortable with), one of them acting as ‘maître d’œuvre’, all following the French proven project management approach.
  • The Chinese side wanted to absorb and tweak the technology along the way (possibly using the experience acquired in their their model labs) with an aim of technology independence, while going through the construction and the required re-engineering in a much more ad-hoc and improvised way, with its chosen contracting companies and without a maître d’œuvre.

Serious Intelligence Concerns

The French intelligence services had early on firmly advised the government against the project, due to doubts as to what China may do with such BSL-4 technology [5]. Specific events also raised some flags with the French services as to the credibility of the Chinese side:

  • China displayed a clear unwillingness to explain what had happened to French mobile BSL-3 labs sold earlier, with some fancy excuse about some being frozen somewhere in a region close to the Himalayas (!!).
  • China asked France to sell it a large number while of BSL-4 suits, something that did not make sense in consideration of the planned operations at the WIV.
  • The services quickly became aware of other BSL-4s being constructed (Kunming) or planned (Harbin); labs which China had not mentioned during the WIV project negotiations.

Political Calculations

Beyond some (limited) immediate economic benefits of the project, the French government expected further economic engagement with China — Wuhan being already a main French entreprenarial base within the country.

6. Design Alterations

The design of the BSL-4 was based on French BSL-4 in Lyon, the largest BSL-4 in Europe at the time (and to this day) that had opened in 1999. The French design underwent several Chinese modifications or improvements.
The introduction of modifications happened throughout the design, construction and operation phases.

  • a laser welded stainless steel shell resting on seismic dampers (to avoid cracks),
  • new software (at higher sampling rate) for the imported Siemens control system,
  • improvement of HVAC and of life support system,
  • new biosafety standards
Wuhan BSL-4 core laboratory Plot Plan, source Wuhan National Biosafety laboratory (Wang & Wang 2018, figure 1)

7. Procurement and construction

Early procurement

Procurement of critical equipment started early, from 2009, well ahead of the Construction that started in 2011. From September 2009, with the help of Bureau Veritas, WIV started working on procurement of six types of key technical biosafety equipments that needed to be approved by France, including positive pressure protective suits (which as noticed above raised questions), life support system, biosafety sterilizer, biosafety filter, airtight doors and complete sets of biologically active wastewater treatment equipment (Wang & Wang, 2018).

Construction blues

The WIV selected the Chinese company IPPR Engineering International for the construction of the lab. IPPR Engineering International was a new company created in 2003, with few experience in biotech engineering and construction contracting and without BSL-4 experiences. Incidentally IPPR was thought to be related to China National Equipment of Machinery Corporation (CNEMC), which had raised some red flags with the US intelligence services [6]. IPPR nevertheless handled the construction.

8. Qualification and Commissioning

Qualification

In China , BSL-2 and below are approved at provincial level, and BSL-3 and 4 at national level. For the BSL-3 and 4 labs, there are two main steps: first the accreditation by CNAS, and then the approval of use of pathogens by the Ministry of Health, National Health Commission (NHC).

Commissioning

This lab was a first of a kind in China and designed for extremely risky operations. As such it would have been preferable for an experienced BSL-4 operation professional to accompany the qualification and start up of the lab, but — as noted previously — the French cooperation ground down to a near symbolic presence after the end of the construction phase in 2015/16. [2]

Accreditation time of WIV labs

9. Project Governance

The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory BSL-4 has a complex governance structure involving four main entities, which may easily result in unclear leadership.

Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory — Governance chart, (2018 Wang & Wang)

10. Conclusion

Budget and Schedule blow-ups

The Wuhan BSL-4 project more than doubled its initial budget (from USD 17 mln equivalent to USD 42 mln). The time to deliver the project was significantly extended by a design and construction phases that lasted in all 10 years,while, following the construction phase, the final commissioning performed by the WIV without external help took a reasonable 2 years time. The total time taken from feasibility studies to start-up was 14 years.

  • Initial budget underestimated
  • Gap between French and Chinese engineering and construction expectations
  • Departures from the French based design, as the Chinese side wanted to test domestic solutions on its way to a strategic autonomy in building and equipping BSL-4 labs.
  • Incorrect phasing between design, procurement and construction steps (equipment delivered too early leading to possible preservation issues, further design during the construction leading to reworks)
  • First of kind project in China (inexperience of Chinese design and construction companies)
  • Multiple entities on the site, without a clear leadership and coverage of the project
  • Inexperience of the French companies involved to design and deliver such a complex project in such a context over so many years
  • Weak financial structure of some of the French companies (one filed for bankruptcy at the end of BSL-4 construction in 2015)
  • Complex project governance (many parties involved)
  • Inherent tensions between intelligence considerations and political considerations on the French side.

An unorthodox project

The Wuhan BSL-4 project was a complex and difficult one, with unique project management, governance and technical issues.

  • The lack of a clear and rigorous project management control, the lack of local expertise, the differing expectations and logics between the French and Chinese sides, and within the French side itself, which at time resulted in open conflicts that had to be resolved at the highest level, all added critical project execution difficulties.
  • The design modifications, whether made for safety improvement or to integrate locally developed know-how, could have affected the design and construction integrity of the lab and would each need a careful HAZOP review.
  • The facts that WIV did the qualifications and started the lab without experienced experts in BSL-4 operations, added to the operational risks during the first years of operations (2018-19).
Wuhan BSL-4 cross section with main modifications

Annexes

Annex 1: WIV Bidding table 2017–2022
Annex 2: Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory Environmental Report (EIA)
Annex 3: Wuhan Patent List and China biosafety lab publications
Annex 4: WIV Tenders & Contracts 2017–2021
Annex 5: WIV Schedules

Related DRASTIC research

Medium Articles:

Notes

[1] For a Kunming ABSL-4 timeline, see https://gillesdemaneuf.medium.com/bsl-4-laboratories-in-china-kunming-wuhan-harbin-109c01d71537

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Gilles Demaneuf

Gilles Demaneuf

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