The WHO investigation has not made it possible to form any certainty: there is currently no proof that SARS-CoV-2 comes from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the birthplace of the pandemic . But many experts are calling not only for the investigation to continue, but also for better control of this type of laboratory.
The Wuhan Institute, a major research center on coronaviruses, notably has a so-called P4 laboratory, for class 4 pathogens.
This classification translates “the highest level of protection to prevent a pathogen from infecting a researcher or escaping into the wild”, explains Gregory Koblentz, bio-defense specialist at George Mason University, in the United States.
Lack of international regulation
A little less than sixty laboratories of this type are in operation or under construction in the world. These are highly secure structures, with in particular “Ventilation systems designed so that viruses cannot escape through the vents”.
Hermetic buildings, decontamination airlock, water and air purification system, sealed handling bubbles, full suits … P4 laboratories are real scientific fortresses.
However, “there is no binding international standard” reveals Gregory Koblentz. And accidents have happened in the past, such as in 2004, when two Chinese students were infected with SARS, a coronavirus they are working on at the Beijing National Institute of Virology.
Risk of genetic manipulation
For Lynn Klotz of the Center for Non-Proliferation and the Fight against Arms, “human errors constitute 70% of errors in laboratories”. For years, he has sounded the alarm on the risks posed by these structures.
Because in these laboratories, which house the most dangerous pathogens on the planet, we can also manipulate these strains and create bacteriological weapons.
Some denounce the dangers associated with so-called research “gain of function” : these are deliberate modifications “in the genetic code, leading to a molecule acquiring a new function that it did not previously have”, explains Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard.
The fear of bioterrorism
Work to better understand a virus and protect against certain epidemics, but which can also give rise to the creation of biological weapons, by increasing the virulence or transmissibility of a pathogen.
“The concern is that a modified organism with the potential to be transmitted between humans accidentally infects someone in a laboratory, and starts an uncontrolled chain of infections.”, summarizes Marc Lipsitch.
For Alina Chan, molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, the P4 laboratories 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. In the meantime, the Wuhan P4 laboratory remains under the magnifying glass of the WHO, which promises to continue its investigation, and to shed light on the origins of the pandemic.