Wuhan BSL-4: Project Overview
Research by the DRASTIC collective
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.
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.
This short description analyses these cost and time increases, their reasons and their possible impacts on the laboratory performance.
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.
10 year spent on design and construction (before any qualification & accreditation) is abnormally long for such a project. It should have been around 5 years. The commissioning time (qualification & accreditation) of 2 years is however normal for a maximum containment laboratory, especially for one of the first BSL-4s built in China (the design and construction of the Kunming ABSL-4 actually started 3 years earlier). 
The WIV managed the project for the Chinese side (on behalf of the Chinese Academy of Science). French companies participated to the design and construction supervision but not to the qualification phase . WIV had the lab accredited and approved, then started the operations alone without further foreign participation.
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.
With Chinese wages lower than US ones on one hand, and some extra costs for imports and technology transfers on the other hand, a rapid estimate (class 5 AACE) is around USD 30 mln for the Wuhan BSL-4 construction cost. Since the initial budget was USD 17 mln, right from the start of the project the construction cost had been underestimated.
As can be expected the Wuhan BSL-4 budget soon more than doubled, but it also went beyond that standard estimate as on August 16, 2011 the China National Development and Reform Commission officially approved a construction budget adjustment from RMB 121.33 mln to RMB 276.96 mln, equivalent to USD 42 mln .
This was further confirmed in 2018, when theWIV asked Wuhan Fangrui Certified Public Accountants to carry out the project final accounts review:
“The estimated project budget required for final accounts is RMB 276.96 mln”
Source: Competitive consultation procurement
A review of the way the BSL-4 was designed and constructed, and the project managed, may help understand this cost inflation.
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.
Beyond BV which is a large international company, the other three French companies were small to medium local companies from around Lyon. These three companies took part to the Lyon BSL-4 project in the 90s, and Altergis and RTV Archi were again involved in the extension of the Lyon BSL-4 around 2011s. These three French companies did not really have either the financial structure or the international experience necessary for such a large complex project encumbered with an unorthodox project management.
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.
In China, by opposition to France, construction companies expect the full details from the engineering company. JT Archi, Altergis and Clima Plus were not used to such a system. They may not have done the details expected by the Chinese IPPR Engineering International and the construction companies. It is possible that the engineering blueprints produced by the the French companies left too much of a gap for the Chinese construction companies. This could have generated additional cost and time, and quality issues.
Nevertheless, whether their traditional design and construction ways supported that need, practically the Chinese side could not do with a full Detail Design from the French side, but needed instead to be able to do some their own Detail Designing to include hone-grows technologies.
Effectively the Chinese side required an hybrid model that would look like a French model without the maitre d’oeuvre and with a strong say for them on the selection of the contractors.
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.
As a result of these differing objectives and contrasting ways of managing complex projects (and not helped by repeated concerns within French intelligence services), the French side eventually took some distance from what looked increasingly to some as a rather difficult engineering project with less and less control on the final delivery .
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 . 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.
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.
But most likely the main calculation was that on the international scene the project would offer some prestige and help position France as a responsible state finding its own way, even if (or especially if) that meant standing up to the US. Indeed, at the time of the signature of the MOU (Jan 2004), the US had just been in a damaging open conflict with France on the occasion of the 2nd Iraq war (2003).
As a result, the US opposition to France transferring BSL-4 technology and know-how to China would fall mostly on deaf ears at the French governmental level, while it carried more weight with the French intelligence services. These intelligence services concerns may effectively have been sidestepped as to the French decision to take on the project, but they were never fully sidestepped during its execution, resulting in tensions on the French side.
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.
By 2008, 4 years after the launching of Wuhan BSL-4 program, China had produced the following major changes, which went some way towards demonstrating some design and engineering localization:
- 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
Other Chinese innovations also include several improvements (some patented) such as an increase of the performance of the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Source) to address power instability, some modifications to the pneumatic doors, some modification of the chemical showers and air exhaust, some modification of the water treatment etc, which together cover most of the important features of the lab. For more details see refer to “Wuhan BSL-4: Engineering Review”
Alongside China’s desired to quickly develop its own design capabilities and to increase its strategic autonomy in lab engineering and equipments, there was also a very normal desire to continuously improve the lab safety. However, there was definitely a discontinuity between the French design based on a proven safe operating lab (Lyon BSL-4 operating from 1999) and the final design with China alterations. This represented a very real gap in project management and also in the validation of the local technologies introduced by these alterations, how much these new technologies may have been previously tried in Chinese test labs.
From a project delivery point of view, that was a very difficult position to be in as it may affect the design integrity and built quality of the lab. At the very least, all these modifications introduced during and after construction should have generated new hazard reviews (re-HAZOP) and possible mitigations. [We cannot confirm they did such reviews, or that they did not for that matter].
7. Procurement and construction
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).
The delivery of these pieces of equipment was ahead of the construction start by 2 to 3 years, due to delays there. This required storing for quite a while, hopefully properly (we could not verify storage conditions, but some source has indicated possible cases of improper storage on site).
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 . IPPR nevertheless handled the construction.
An issue was also raised with a Chinese contracting company that was not acceptable to the French side, resulting in a 3-month construction stop and governmental negotiations before the Chinese side eventually relented.
Without these complications, the construction plan would have already been complicated enough. It involved multiple entities and companies, without a clearly defined leadership and an overall oversight. Practically the project lacked clarity of execution and suffered from divergent objectives between the two parties, the French companies involved lacked some international experience and were not ready for a 10 years marathon, while the Chinese companies lacked biosafety expertise.
In a perfect world, in order to aliavate these difficulties the WIV would have selected a solid international EPC (Engineering, Procurement, Construction) company and would have tackled the intended alterations early.
8. Qualification and Commissioning
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).
The Wuhan BSL-4 accreditation and then approval seems to have been quite smooth from 2017 to 2018, managed by WIV alone. The main dates are:
- January 2017 BSL-4 CNAS National laboratory accreditation certificate
- August 2017 BSL-4 NHC qualification review of the highly pathogenic experimental activities , and approval (Wang & Wang, 2018).
- January 2018 BSL-4 officially starts its operations (Wang & Wang, 2018)
The Wuhan BSL-4 was accredited by CNAS (China National Accreditation Service), with Kunming and Harbin. There was no international accreditation for the Wuhan BSL-4, even if, as a product of French cooperation, we could have expected an international accreditation either by a French certified body or by an international one.
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. 
For reference, Doctor Susan Fisher Hoch, with 10 year experience working in BSL-4, directed the launching of Lyon BSL-4 in France from 1997 to 2000 and accompanied the lab operations during the first two years.
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.
The laboratory is managed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, under the leadership of a council composed of China Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Health (CDC) and the Wuhan Municipal People’s Government. Additionally it has to follow the guidance of three committees: Academic Committee, Biosafety Committee and Local Coordination Committee.
The project was also part of the planned Sino-French cooperation for infectious diseases, with a committee of 8 personalities (4 Chinese, 4 French) and a Sino-French group of 40 persons at most.
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.
This project combined novelty on highly sensitive technology, international cooperation punctuated by strong tensions, and a complicated and rather painful project execution.
The main causes of the increases in cost and schedule were:
- 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).
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
- BSL-4 laboratories in China, Kunming, Wuhan, Harbin
- BSL-4 Biosafety engineering researches in Tianjin, China
- Wuhan BSL-4: Engineering Review
- BSL Laboratories in Wuhan and their roles in coronaviruses research
- Biosafety Laboratories in Wuhan, China
- Biosafety Laboratories in China
- Wuhan BSL-4 Project design and management
 For a Kunming ABSL-4 timeline, see https://gillesdemaneuf.medium.com/bsl-4-laboratories-in-china-kunming-wuhan-harbin-109c01d71537
 Gabriel Gras, a French biosecurity expert attached as a technical expert at the French embassy worked with the WIV until its certification in 2017 and left thereafter to become Gopura Asia China CEO between February 2017 and march 2018. Gopuras Asia was formed by Thierry Morand, the ex president of Clima Plus, which worked on the Wuhan BSL-4 until its bankruptcy and liquidation in 2017–18.
René Courcol was on paper still working on biosecurity and biosafety at the WIV in 2018, making him the last French representative in that project. His actual authority and precise role was not clear, but in 2018 he wrote the article on Chinese standards (published in 2019 in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity). He seems to have left Wuhan shortly after and is now working for a Expertise France, a French public company in charge of international cooperation on large projects.
Past its certification (2017) and once it became operational after receiving its first accreditation to handle BSL-4 risky pathogens (2018), none of the planned 50 French researchers ever showed up at the WIW. The promised Sino-French cooperation project on pathogen studies at the WIV had hit the buffer, even if it would still be occasionally rolled out with some corresponding Chinese controversial demands for supplies of French BSL-4 suits.
 For 2008 US cost estimates of suit/cabinet BSL-4 labs, see Janet Baum presentation.
 See: Historical Investigation on the Construction of Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, 2018, Wang & Wang.
 A rarely discussed apposite may also be found in the case of the BSL-4 of the Taiwan Military Institute of Preventive Medical Research (IPMR), part of the National Defence University. According to unverified Chinese sources, Taiwan purchased the IPMR from France in 1983 under a confidential project with codename ‘White Chicken 16’. A more recent Western source described it as being ‘full of advanced French-made equipment’. It seems that that Taiwan BSL-4 relied on BSL-4 gloved cabinets, one of which would be the unfortunate source of a SARS Lab Acquired Infection in 2003. There is thus little doubt that France played a key role in establishing BSL-4 capabilities in both Taiwan and China.
 IPPR Engineering International was also thought to be related to China National Equipment of Machinery Corporation (CNEMC), which was suspected of being controlled by the PLA. According to French Intel services at the time (DGSE working for the SGDSN under the Prime Minister), CNEMC had long been a surveillance target of the US Central Intelligence Agency and was for a while on its blacklist, as some of its subsidiaries were suspected of being Chinese intelligence assets.