Scientists warned in 2017 that a SARS-like virus could escape a lab set up that year in Wuhan, China, to study some of the most dangerous pathogens in the world.
Now, a SARS-like coronavirus has infected more than 600 there, spread to at least 10 other countries and killed 18 in Wuhan and nearby provinces.
China installed the first of a planned five to seven biolabs designed for maximum safety in Wuhan in 2017, for the purpose of studying the most high-risk pathogens, including the Ebola and the SARS viruses.
Tim Trevan, a Maryland biosafety consultant, told Nature that year, when the lab was on the cusp of opening, that he worried that China’s culture could make the institute unsafe because ‘structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important.’
In fact, the SARS virus had ‘escaped’ multiple times from a lab in Beijing, according to the Nature article.
The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory is located about 20 miles away from the Huanan Seafood Market and some have wondered if the outbreak’s epicenter is coincidental, but the scientific community currently believes that the virus mutated through and jumped to people through animal-human contact at the market.
China’s highest-grade lab for studying viruses is located in Wuhan, the same city at the center of the current coronavirus outbreak
The Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, housed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was set up in the hopes of helping China contribute research on the world’s most dangerous viruses.
Constructed in 2015, the lab was still undergoing safety testing, but near ready to open in 2017.
It was the first ever lab in the country designed to meet biosafetey-level-4 (BSL-4) standards – the highest biohazard level, meaning that it would be qualified to handle the most dangerous pathogens.
BSL-4 labs have to be equipped with airtight hazmat suits or special ‘cabinet’ work spaces that confine viruses and bacteria that can be transmitted through the air to sealed boxes that scientists reach into using attached high-grade gloves.
There are about 54 BSL-4 labs worldwide.
China’s first, in Wuhan, received federal accreditation in January 2017.
Upon opening, it first took up a project that required only BSL-3 precautions to be in place: a tickborne virus that causes Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
It’s as highly fatal disease, killing 10 to 40 percent of those it infects.
SARS, too, is a BSL-3 virus. According to Nature’s interview with the lab’s director, Yuan Zhimin, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory planned to study the SARS virus.
In January 2018, the lab was operational ‘for global experiments on BSL-4 pathogens,’ wrote Guizhen Wu in the journal Biosafety and Health.
After a SARS virus escaped in a ‘leak’ from another lab in 2004, Chinese officials worked to improve safety, but also to expand the country’s capacity to continue to study the very viruses its lab had let out.
‘After a laboratory leak incident of SARS in 2004, the former Ministry of Health of China initiated the construction of preservation laboratories for high-level pathogens such as SARS, coronavirus, and pandemic influenza virus,’ wrote Guizhen Wu.
It’s not clear what or where those labs were.
The Wuhan lab is also equipped for animal research.
In 2017, the scientists who spoke to Nature acknowledge the opportunity this presents for the development of vaccines and treatments.
Regulations for animal research – especially that conducted on primates – are much looser in China than in the US and other Western countries, meaning these studies are less costly and face fewer barriers that could limit or slow them.
But that was also cause for concern for Dr Ebright.
Studying the behavior of a virus like 209-nCoV and developing treatments or vaccines for it requires infecting these research monkeys, an important step before human testing.
Monkeys are unpredictable though, warned Ebright.
‘They can run, they can scratch they can bite,’ he said, and the viruses they carry would go where their feet, nails and teeth do.