China Plans Dozens of High-Level Biosafety Labs in Southern Province

Inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan, the Chinese biosafety laboratory accused by senior US officials of being at the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. Picture taken in 2017
Johannes EISELE/AFP

Officials from China’s province of Guangdong said on Monday they are planning to build dozens of high-level biosafety laboratories that should be able to safely handle infectious diseases, including at least one capable of handling Ebola.

The South China Morning Post quoted Guangdong Department of Science and Technology director Wang Ruijun admitting his province has a dangerous shortage of top-level biosafety facilities, which is somewhat curious given that Guangdong was the source of the SARS outbreak in 2003. 

The plan to remedy this shortage involves building as many as 30 labs rated at Bio-Safety Level (BSL) 3 and at least one BSL-4 lab, which would be qualified to handle deadly diseases like Ebola. The Chinese national government wants to build at least one BSL-3 lab in every province.

Of course, another deadly disease is currently occupying the attention of the world and the news about Chinese biosafety labs in that case is mixed. The SCMP noted that China currently has two BSL-4 labs and one of them is the now-infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology, from which many critics of the Chinese government believe the coronavirus escaped.

Wang pointed out that since much of China’s commerce and travel to the outside world pass through Guangdong’s Greater Bay Area, it makes sense to have “platforms and infrastructure and be equipped with the ability to diagnose, recognise and research, as well as the ability to respond to emergencies.”

“The U.S. has close to 1,500 BSL-3 labs, and almost all medical organizations or medical schools have them. But, China lacks high-level biosafety labs, especially in Guangdong,” he said.

Building more BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs, many of which would be located in or near existing hospital facilities, would help doctors diagnose new diseases more quickly while minimizing the risks of handling dangerous diseases at insecure facilities or transporting them to distant laboratories for analysis. 

The Chinese government still insists the Wuhan Institute of Virology played no role in unleashing the coronavirus pandemic, but it seems willing to acknowledge that shipping dangerous viruses cross-country is a risky endeavor. Two weeks ago, Chinese officials admitted that laboratories were instructed to destroy valuable coronavirus samples but insisted this was done purely for safety reasons, not because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted to eliminate evidence that it knew the virus was highly communicable and dangerous long before it conceded as much to the rest of the world.

Shi Zhengli, deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a researcher known as the “Bat Woman” for her focus on coronaviruses in bats, warned in an interview with Chinese state television on Monday that “the viruses we have discovered are just the tip of the iceberg” and more pandemics are probably on the way.

Shi’s interview, timed to coincide with the beginning of the CCP’s National People’s Congress session, repeated the standard government lines that international cooperation is crucial, efforts to blame China for the pandemic are “very regrettable,” and her institute had nothing to do with the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus.

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