An article in Nature in October 2022 suggested that “in the wake” of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and its human and economic consequences, an increase in high-level biosafety laboratories is expected. Although this might be framed in a positive and prepared light, the publication indicates that “researchers are concerned” about this uptake in facilities for a variety of reasons.  

Facilities for the future 

Of the global goals to create laboratories, India’s are described as the “most ambitious”. It is currently building 5 biosafety-level-3 (BSL-3) facilities with a further 9 in its sights. Additionally, 4 institutions are reported to have indicated an intention to construct BSL-4 labs. At the moment, India only has one in operation. Furthermore, the government has “committed” to building 4 national institutes of virology, 2 of which will be able to handle BSL-4 pathogens.  

  • BSL-3 facilities are “designed so that scientists can safely work with potentially lethal and inhaled pathogens in a contained environment”. At these locations experiments take place in sealed, filtered workspaces.  
  • BSL-4 laboratories enable scientists to “work with fatal pathogens that can spread through aerosols, and for which vaccines or treatments are lacking or limited”. These are isolated from other areas of a building and have a “dedicated air supply”. Researchers are required to shower and change upon entry and before exiting the site.  

Local researchers believe that these facilities are critical for a country of India’s size, particularly in the context of the pandemic. In other locations, such as Kazakhstan, Singapore, and the Philippines, the construction of BSL-4 facilities is anticipated. In the US, roughly “a dozen maximum-containment facilities” will be joined by another BSL-4 lab. We are even led to believe, with “scant” details, that Russia will build 15. These developments will take time, but plans are underway across the world to expand and improve preparedness and responsiveness.  

Global inequalities 

During the pandemic varying abilities to conduct research and development became even clearer across the world. Investigating SARS-CoV-2 has to be done at a BSL-3 or BSL-4 facility, which meant many brilliant minds were unable to exercise their powers to their full potential due to infrastructural inequalities. Dr Bharati Pawar is India’s minster for Health and Family Welfare, and she believes that the “weakness of health systems” across the world were exposed by the pandemic. 

“In this light, the critical element of any preparedness programme is lab preparedness.”  

As well as pandemic preparedness, researchers are hoping that these labs will promote research into vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases that are particularly damaging in the new locations. Examples include tuberculosis and dengue virus. Dr Kathrin Summermatter of the University of Bern’s BSL-3 lab believes that “lab capacity to study endemic diseases” is crucial. Not only will the labs improve research quality, but, according to Nature, they will “improve working conditions” for scientists who can conduct their research in local facilities with greater ease.  

Concerns and costs 

Despite the apparent benefits of increasing our capabilities to prepare for future pandemics, “some scientists” are worried that the “huge cost” of maintaining BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities will be too much to meet. Dr Illich Mombo, working at the International Centre for Medical Research of Franceville in Gabon, indicated that only 10% of the lab’s budget is used for experiments. The other 90% is used for facility upkeep.  

Others are concerned about biological risks, such as the nightmarish potential to create more dangerous pathogens or allow microorganisms to escape. The article in Nature refers to a study that demonstrated that in the Philippines “biosafety officers had only a weak understanding of biosafety”. Thus, the plans to build a BSL-4 lab are daunting.  

Tension between risk and reward 

The obvious benefits of developing a greater understanding of some of our most dangerous health threats are tightly bound to the risks of such research. For example, gain-of-function studies might increase a pathogen’s potential to harm humans through modification. However, some scientists expect safety practices to improve with increased capacity.  

If you would like to learn more about the importance of pathogen research in preparing for future threats, get your tickets to the World Vaccine Congress in Washington, 2023.