Covid-19 – Laboratory accidents: the safety of research on viruses in question

PostedMay 30, 2021, 6:56 AM

There is no evidence that the Covid-19 comes from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but many experts are calling for further investigation and better laboratory control.

The Wuhan Institute is a major coronavirus research center. (Photo Hector RETAMAL / AFP)


Recently relaunched, the hypothesis of the leak of the new coronavirus from a Chinese laboratory, or even of its possible genetic modification by scientists, at the same time revived the debate around the security measures surrounding the most sensitive research centers of the planet.

While there is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 comes from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the birthplace of the pandemic, many experts are not only calling for further investigation on its origin, but also to better control of this type of laboratory. The Wuhan Institute, a major research center on coronaviruses, but which Beijing vigorously denies is linked to the emergence of Covid-19, notably has a so-called P4 laboratory, for a class 4 pathogen.

This classification reflects “the highest level of protection to prevent a pathogen from infecting a researcher or escaping into nature”, explains to AFP Gregory Koblentz, bio-defense specialist at George Mason University, at United States.

According to a recent report he co-authored, just under 60 similar labs are in operation or under construction around the world. “The ventilation systems are designed so that viruses cannot escape through the vents, the water leaving these buildings is treated with chemicals or high temperatures,” he explains for example.

However, “there is no binding international standard,” according to this report. And accidents have happened in the past. In 2004, two Chinese students were infected with SARS, another coronavirus on which work is being carried out at the Beijing National Institute of Virology, where they work. Several cases are confirmed in their entourage, and the mother of one of them dies.

“Human errors constitute 70% of errors in laboratories,” Lynn Klotz, of the Center for Non-Proliferation and the Fight against Arms, told AFP. For years, he has sounded the alarm on the risks posed by these structures.

Genetic manipulations

The theory of a SARS-CoV-2 leak from the Wuhan Institute is also doubled, in the United States, with accusations of dangerous genetic manipulation, in particular relayed by certain elected Republicans. They accuse the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) of having funded research in Wuhan called “gain-of-function”. The NIH denies having participated in such work. What is it exactly?

The researches of “gain of function” constitute deliberate modifications “in the genetic code, leading to what a molecule acquires a new function which it did not previously have”, explains to AFP Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard.

A “broad” term which also includes common and harmless experiences. “This is why some people use the term ‘worrying gain of function'” to describe the more problematic studies, “he explains. This work can therefore aim to introduce changes to increase the virulence or transmissibility of a pathogen.

What interest? “If you can understand what mutations are required for an influenza virus circulating in birds to be able to infect humans, you can monitor whether these mutations are occurring in viruses in nature, and increase your vigilance towards them. », Explains Amesh Adalja of the American Johns Hopkins University.

But for some specialists, the risk of accident is too great, for little benefit. “The concern is that a modified organism with the potential to be transmitted between humans accidentally infects someone in a lab, and starts an uncontrolled chain of infections,” says Marc Lipsitch.

What regulation?

The first debates on the subject date back to 2011, with the work of researchers who created versions of the H5N1 avian influenza virus capable of being transmitted between mammals. A huge controversy erupts. Some fear that these techniques could be used by “bioterrorists”. In the United States, under pressure from many scientists, including Marc Lipsitch, research into “gain of function” on influenza viruses and coronaviruses was suspended in 2014.

A measure finally lifted in 2017, with the establishment of a new framework: this work must now be studied beforehand by a special committee, on a case-by-case basis. But the members of this committee are anonymous, and their deliberations are not public, laments Mr. Lipsitch. The process “is not transparent”.

For Alina Chan, molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, the laboratories conducting this research should especially be located in very isolated places, and all their employees subjected to quarantine before returning to society. According to her, an outright ban would on the other hand only encourage clandestine research. “Scientists are very creative people, we’ll find a way to make it safer,” she concludes.


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