In Fight Against Diseases, China to Open Top-Safety Biology Lab
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2017-09-27 12:16:17

A new research institute in Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province, will later this year join the global community of elite laboratories that study the world’s most dangerous infectious diseases, reported the state-owned newspaper Science and Technology Daily on Tuesday.

The new research base will be the first in China certified as biosafety level 4 (BSL-4), the highest standard set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States for laboratories that deal with test animals and infectious microorganisms.

BSL-4 laboratories are designed to effectively seal off experiment areas from the outside world. They also incorporate strict security measures, such as iris scanners. According to a 2011 list, there are 40 such labs either in use or under construction worldwide, about half of which are located in the U.S. and the European Union.

BSL-4 institutes carry out experiments on deadly pathogens for which there is currently no reliable cure, such as Ebola and Marburg, highly dangerous viruses that could kill thousands in a single outbreak.

Workers are seen next to a cage containing mice (right) inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 23, 2017. Johannes Eisele/VCG

Workers are seen next to a cage containing mice (right) inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 23, 2017. Johannes Eisele/VCG

The Wuhan BSL-4 laboratory is a cooperation between the city government and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Also known as P4 Laboratory, plans for the institute were first drawn up in 2003 after the outbreak of SARS, a viral respiratory disease that caused at least 5,000 deaths in China.

The lab is part of a 10-year-plan by the Ministry of Science and Technology that proposes to build five to seven BSL-4 laboratories by 2025 as well as one BSL-3 lab in every province. It was built with technology and equipment imported from France, and some of its future research staff have visited France for BSL-4 training.

Although construction was finished in 2015, the lab has since undergone multiple assessments, Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan branch of CAS, told the Science and Technology Daily. “The lab will become a public platform for Chinese scientists to conduct research into dangerous viruses,” Yuan said.

“The opening of a Chinese BSL4 [laboratory] is another step in the excellent growth of the country’s research base,” Vincent Racaniello, virology professor at the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at Columbia University in New York, told Sixth Tone Wednesday by email.

Official funding for research into infectious diseases used to be low before the SARS strike. For example, the Chinese government invested only 10,000 to 20,000 yuan ($1,500 to 3,000) per year into Ebola studies until 2003, but funding has increased in recent years. In comparison, the U.S. annually spent an average of $55 million from 1997 to 2015 to fund research into the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

In 2014, a national program provided 20 million yuan in funding for domestic Ebola studies. Additionally, a private biotechnology company in Tianjin, CanSino, has invested millions into the construction of facilities for vaccine production, including an Ebola vaccine that the company tested successfully in Phase 2 trials in 2015.

“It’s extremely important to study dangerous pathogens such as the Ebola virus. We need to understand how such pathogens cause disease, how they spread, and how new ones emerge,” said Racaniello. “While there is no ongoing Ebola outbreak, research continues because we still need to learn about the virus and be ready for the next outbreak.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Workers are seen inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 23, 2017. Johannes Eisele/VCG)