A project aimed at improving biosafety and biosecurity practices in high-risk laboratories working on dangerous pathogens will be led by Dr Filippa Lentzos, Co-Director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
Alongside Dr Gregory Koblentz from George Mason University, Dr Lentzos has received £110,000 worth of funding to develop the Mapping Global Bio Labs project, an online tool that tracks the number of high biocontainment laboratories around the world.
Also known as biosafety-level (BSL) 4 labs, these laboratories undertake hazardous research into lethal viruses to improve our understanding of diseases such as Ebola and Lassa Fever and to better prepare the world against new and emerging diseases.
Research into pathogens is vital for public health, biomedical advances and disease prevention. However, these activities pose significant risks. Surges in the number of labs and an expansion in the high-risk research carried out within them have exacerbated safety and security risks.
The debate on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic has focused attention on lab leaks and safety lapses in the course of scientific research. Whether or not the pandemic resulted from an accident, the key concern is it could have.
Significantly more countries are expected to build these high-risk labs in the wake of Covid-19 as part of a renewed emphasis on pandemic preparedness and response. In addition, high risk gain-of-function research, which deliberately makes potentially pandemic pathogens such as coronaviruses and influenza viruses more dangerous to humans, will likely increase as scientists seek to mitigate against new and emerging diseases.
These trends make it increasingly urgent to put in place higher national and international standards to address the safety and security risks of working with dangerous pathogens.
‘Yet at present, there is no requirement to report these facilities internationally, and no international entity is mandated to collect information on the safety and security measures they have in place, or to provide oversight at a global level,’ explains Lentzos.
Earlier this year Dr Lentzos and Dr Koblentz conducted a feasibility study to map BSL4 labs and biorisk management indicators globally. The project Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally was launched at the annual World Health Assembly meeting in May 2021. The publicly accessible tool provides basic information on where the labs are located, when they were established and their size, as well as some information on local oversight and risk management measures.
The funding will build on the successful feasibility study to create an improved, expanded, and much more detailed resource with which to monitor these high-risk labs worldwide. It is hoped the tool will enable international organisations such as the WHO to keep a closer eye on the activities undertaken in these labs and to ensure adequate biosafety and biosecurity measures are put in place.
‘Covid-19 was a wake-up call about the vulnerabilities of our modern, globalised societies to a novel respiratory virus,’ says Lentzos. ‘Preventing the next pandemic should be a priority for all countries, and ensuring that research with hazardous pathogens, especially those with potential pandemic properties, is conducted safely, securely and responsibly must be a key element of that strategy.’