Why does China have a high security, Bio-Safety Level-4 (BSL-4) laboratory in Wuhan? What is it, and what does it do? Is it part of a secret Chinese bioweapons research program? Is it related in any way to the novel coronavirus outbreak?
Considering that Wuhan was the original outbreak of the current COVID-19 virus pandemic, these are important questions that much of the press seems to be ignoring. But it is clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want them asked.
According to Nature, the respected International Weekly Journal of Science, this unique bio-containment laboratory in Wuhan, built with assistance from France, is only three years old. It was cleared by the Chinese government in 2017 to work with the world’s most dangerous pathogens, but according to the UK’s Daily Mail, it may have only become operational ‘for global experiments on BSL-4 pathogens,’ in January 2018.
BSL-4 labs are built to contain highly infectious and lethal agents such as the Ebola, Nipah and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever viruses, as well as SARS, coronavirus, and pandemic influenza virus.
Known as the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, it is housed within the Chinese Academy of Sciences and was specifically designed to help Chinese scientists “prepare for and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks,” according to a 2019 report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Wuhan lab is the first of between five and seven BSL-4 labs the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plans to build across the Chinese mainland by 2025.
Nature explains that BSL-4 is the highest level of biocontainment: its criteria require scientists to wear Hazmat suits, use filtered air and treat water and waste before they leave the laboratory. Safety protocols also require researchers change clothes and shower before and after using lab facilities.
The Wuhan lab was BSL-4 certified by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment (CNAS). The CNAS examined the lab’s infrastructure, equipment and management, paving the way for the Ministry of Health approval.
Chinese leaders claim the lab is for scientific research to aid the world. “It will offer more opportunities for Chinese researchers, and our contribution on the BSL‑4-level pathogens will benefit the world,” said George Gao in 2017. Gao is the director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Key Laboratory of Pathogenic Microbiology and Immunology in Beijing.
Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting, said in Nature that China’s investment in a BSL-4 lab may, above all, be a way to prove to the world that the nation is competitive. “It is a big status symbol in biology,” he says, “whether it’s a need or not.”
However, as Nature also notes, some scientists outside China worry about pathogens escaping, and others are concerned these labs could be part of a covert biological weapons program. The plan to expand this lab into a bigger network of labs only heightens these concerns. One BSL-4 lab in Harbin is already awaiting accreditation; the next two are expected to be in Beijing and Kunming.
Back in 2017, Trevan noted in Nature that he was concerned about China’s repressive authoritarian system and culture, explaining that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and questioning how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy.
“Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important,” he says. The aggressive CCP cover-up and censorship of outbreak information from Wuhan only reinforced this fear.
Meanwhile, China’s President-for-Life Xi Jinping only added fuel to the fire when on Feb. 14 told an emergency meeting in Beijing that a national system to control bio-security risks was needed “to protect the people’s health.” Xi called lab security a “national security issue.” The timing was suspicious, at best.
Free Pressers noted that soon after Xi’s Feb. 14 comments, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive titled: “Instructions on strengthening bio-security management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel Coronavirus.”
All this seems to indicate that the Chinese government has a very real problem securing its deadly pathogens.
It is also important to note that the SARS virus escaped from other high-level (BSL-3) containment facilities in Beijing multiple times before, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, in Nature. Ebright is also not convinced of the need for more than one BSL-4 lab in mainland China.
He also worries that the large planned expansion of BSL-4 labs in China and its excess capacity can be used for the potential development of bioweapons.
“These facilities are inherently dual use,” Ebright says, referring to the labs being able to be used for both civilian and military purposes. Other analysts have also expressed their concerns these labs could be part of a greater covert bioweapons research program.
President Trump is right to emphasize the Chinese origins of this novel coronavirus. The world needs to demand openness and transparency from the Chinese regime, and much more oversight and investigation into the Wuhan biolab, and its planned network of sister labs.
Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.