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Saturday, January 25, 2020

US Warned Virus Could ‘Escape’ From Lab Near Coronavirus Epicentre

wuhan institute of virology, coronavirus

Two years before the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus that has so far killed 25 people in China, scientists spoke of their fears about a new laboratory being built to study some of the world’s most dangerous viruses.

The laboratory was built in Wuhan, the city at the heart of the outbreak of the new strain of coronavirus, that has so far infected more than 800 people.

Overnight, China’s National Health Commission anounced the new death toll, including the first death outside the central province of Hubei.

A fish market in Wuhan, Hubei’s sprawling capital, is believed to be where the deadly virus originated.

It sits some 20 miles from the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, which housed dangerous pathogens including SARS and Ebola.

In 2017, as the opening of the lab approached, scientists told the publication Nature of their worries that one of those killer viruses could ‘escape’ and go on to infect members of the public.

Tim Trevan, a Maryland biosafety consultant, said he had fears China’s culture could make the institute unsafe because ‘structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important’.

wuhan institute of virology, coronavirus
Researchers working at the lab must wear hazmat suits and work in special ‘cabinet’ work spaces that confine viruses and bacteria (Picture: Wuhan Institute of Virology)

wuhan institute of virology, coronavirus
The Wuhan laboratory was the first in China designed to meet biosafetey-level-4 (BSL-4) standards – the highest biohazard level (Picture: Wuhan Institute of Virology)

The SARS virus – which between 2002 and 2004 infected 8,098 people and killed 774 – had infact ‘escaped’ multiple times from a lab in Beijing prior to Wuhan’s lab opening, according to the Nature article.

China installed the first of a planned five to seven biolabs designed for maximum safety in Wuhan in 2017, for the purpose of studying the most high-risk pathogens, like SARS.

The lab, housed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was built in 2015 and ready to open in 2017.

It was the first ever lab in the country designed to meet biosafetey-level-4 (BSL-4) standards – the highest biohazard level, meaning that it would be qualified to handle the most dangerous pathogens.

BSL-4 labs have to be equipped with airtight hazmat suits or special ‘cabinet’ work spaces that confine viruses and bacteria that can be transmitted through the air to sealed boxes that scientists reach into using attached high-grade gloves.

There are about 54 BSL-4 labs worldwide.

China’s first, in Wuhan, received federal accreditation in January 2017.

Despite the early fears over mass-contamination, experts have said there are currently no suspicions the facility had anything to do with the current outbreak, first detected in China in December.

Rutgers University microbiologist Dr Richard Ebright told ‘there’s no reason to harbor suspicions’ that the lab is connected to the Wuhan coronavirus ‘besides being responsible for the crucial genome sequencing that lets doctors diagnose it’.

According to Guizhen Wu writing in the journal Biosafety and Health, the Wuhan lab was operational ‘for global experiments on BSL-4 pathogens’ in January 2018.

He added: ‘ After a laboratory leak incident of SARS in 2004, the former Ministry of Health of China initiated the construction of preservation laboratories for high-level pathogens such as SARS, coronavirus, and pandemic influenza virus.’

wuhan institute of virology
Wuhan Institute of Virology

The scientists who spoke out in 2017 told Nature the work being carried out in Wuhan was important for the development of vaccines and treatments.

This included conducting tests on animals, including monkeys, as regulations for animal research are much looser in China than in Western countries.

The latest strain of coronavirus, which scientists currently believe mutated to infect people through animal-human contact, has now spread to at leats 10 other countries and seen nine cities with a combined population of 32 million people put on lockdown, meaning they are unable to leave.

In the UK, more than a dozen people have been tested for coronavirus, with five confirmed negative and nine still awaiting results.

There is only one laboratory testing for the coronavirus in Britain, which is operated by Public Health England (PHE).

All the cases that are being investigated there had been flagged up through the PHE infection guidelines, as they were people who had travelled to Wuhan within the last 14 days and were showing signs of respiratory symptoms.

[ By Metro UK ]

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