Greg Koblentz, member of the Center’s Scientists Working Group of Chemical and Biological Threats, spoke with the New York Times about the lab-leak hypothesis and lab safety.
“All along, discussion of lab safety has continued, but it’s often been the under-the-radar or behind-the-scenes kind that Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London — one of the leaders, with Gregory Koblentz, of George Mason University’s Global Biolabs project — described to me as “invisible work.”
It’s a system that Koblentz, in an interview alongside Lentzos, described to me as “a total crazy patchwork quilt of rules” giving rise to a “big zone of uncertainty” about which labs are doing what kinds of work under whose oversight and with what level of security and precaution. Globally, the governance and oversight structure is even more patchwork. And to judge by the number of places doing those experiments, the risks may be growing in the wake of the pandemic, not shrinking.
That is the lead finding of a new Global Biolabs report, scheduled for publication next month, which builds on a worldwide database of the highest-security labs, called BSL-4, first published in 2021. At the time, Lentzos says, “there were lots of open questions,” and she and Koblentz were inundated with questions from journalists and policymakers: “So how many labs are there? Where do I get the list? And of course, there isn’t a list. There’s no official international list of these labs. There’s no international oversight body.” They found themselves referring journalists to Wikipedia, which they agreed was “pathetic.”
“As Koblentz and Lentzos point out, not all of these labs are especially concerning from a safety perspective, nor is the fact that there are more of them being built. Many are quite small and perform relatively rote diagnostic work at hospitals or universities. Size and safety level are also not necessarily indicative of risks, they say: There isn’t anything necessarily worrying about a BSL-4 processing blood tests for Ebola, and you can do potentially dangerous work at BSL-3 and BSL-2 labs, as well, if you’re working with relatively benign pathogens that could grow significantly more transmissible or deadly in the lab.
Given the value of new knowledge about viruses, Koblentz and Lentzos are careful to describe themselves not as anti-science but pro-research, and even supportive of some potentially risky research, assuming the proper oversight is in place and the cost-benefit calculation was made thoughtfully. “But there are very clear risks that come out of these labs, and we’re building more globally and in places that don’t have as good oversight as there is in the places where these labs have traditionally been built,” Lentzos says. “The more pandemic research you do,” Koblentz adds, “it does potentially lead to more risks of an accident.”
How might we limit that potential? A single coherent national framework, for starters, in which all such research would be registered and subjected to oversight and approval based on careful evaluations of the risks and benefits. Ideally we’d also have global governance on the same model; automatic investigation of new outbreaks, with expectations of international cooperation, as Kane has called for; clearer guidance for “in-between” categories of laboratories sometimes called “BSL-3+”; new safety standards for research in the field, which is at present “almost completely unregulated,” Koblentz says; and a new culture of research practices, Lentzos suggests, emphasizing safety and transparency over risk-taking in the laboratory.
Koblentz and Lentzos are involved in several other ongoing lab-safety initiatives, including the Pathogens Project, convened by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, to consider oversight and potential new “red lines” for virological research going forward. But their new report includes a present-tense report card as well.
On biosafety, Koblentz says, “we’re in the best shape,” though he cautions that is only in relative terms — “I don’t want to imply that we’re in great shape.” On biosecurity, he says, it’s more of a “mixed bag.” But when it comes to oversight on this sort of research, “barely anyone is doing anything,” he says. “There’s one or two countries that do well in the category and a lot of countries with literally zero oversight. They have nothing in place to monitor or oversee the research with potential pandemic pathogens or with gain-of-function research. So they wouldn’t even know what was going to happen if it was to happen.”
But it’s not always so clear that particular research projects point so obviously to potential benefits that they justify their inherent risks. In fact, as Koblentz points out, the wave of public concern that ultimately resulted in an Obama-era moratorium on gain-of-function research began with questions about experiments designed to push the avian influenza H5N1 virus to become transmissible between mammals, to better prepare for that eventuality should it take place in nature. And yet the results of those experiments have not proved helpful in anticipating the recent bird flu developments, with H5N1 appearing to follow a different evolutionary path.” Read more