The world still hasn’t figured out how to regulate research into deadly viruses

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with novel coronavirus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via Reuters) (Niaid/Via Reuters)
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with novel coronavirus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via Reuters) (Niaid/Via Reuters)

A year ago this month, much of the world went into lockdown. This spring, the world is mostly coming out of lockdown. Vaccinations are increasing. Infections, hospitalizations and deaths are decreasing. But once the public health emergency subsides and our lives slowly return to normal, there’s an urgent question that needs to be addressed: How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

To answer that question, we must understand how this pandemic began. Yet the origin story of covid-19 remains a mystery. China’s official explanation (which is also endorsed by many scientists) is that the novel coronavirus likely made the leap from animals to humans. That might be precisely what happened. Pathogens known as zoonotic diseases commonly spread that way.

There’s also a rival hypothesis, that covid-19 resulted from a “lab leak” — an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That could be a baseless conspiracy theory, but it’s not impossible. Lab leaks do happen. But whether it caused this pandemic or not, a lab accident could certainly cause the next one. Scientists have been sounding that alarm for some time, well before the current pandemic began.

Given what we’ve been through over the past year, you’d imagine that governments are already working to tighten up international regulation of pathogens. You might assume there’s an international organization filled with well-educated bureaucrats and scientists in Brussels or Geneva that is busy conducting rigorous spot checks of virus research labs to ensure they’re up to code.

But it turns out the real story isn’t comforting at all. There’s no formal international body of rules governing research on potentially dangerous biological agents, other than the Biological Weapons Convention adopted in the 1970s. There’s no international organization monitoring virology research. Heck, there’s not even a code of rules that countries are required to follow, only some non-binding guidance from the World Health Organization. When it comes to studying, tampering with or producing new viruses, the international system is the Wild West.

It’s high time we put a sheriff in charge.

One person who has thought a lot about who that sheriff might be is Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London. Lentzos is an expert on biological agents and emerging pathogen threats. And what she has to say isn’t reassuring.

She explains that scientists around the world work with the most dangerous pathogens in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs. “But there are no international regulations [on those labs]. There’s no set international law that they have to follow. There's nobody checking what they're doing. There are no inspectors, no regulators. There's none of that.”

It gets even worse. Lentzos tells me that the system is so uncontrolled that there’s not even a proper list of these facilities. “You cannot track them because there’s not even an official international list of global BSL-4 labs,” she explains.

Lentzos is working on a project to create a comprehensive list, the first step in pushing for greater oversight. But her list keeps getting longer. “These kinds of labs are springing up much more frequently,” she says. “There are loads more than there were five years ago, and way, way more than there were 10 years ago.”

Lentzos has therefore advocated for a series of reforms to govern labs that work on dangerous pathogens with pandemic potential. Chief among them is creating an international body with a mandate to oversee, inspect and regulate those research facilities, no matter where they are.

That’s an urgent priority because the proliferation of BSL-4 labs without corresponding regulation is a ticking time bomb for dangerous pathogens. Even though most of these labs are doing legitimate research rather than developing biological weapons, the benefits to society might not always outweigh the potential for a catastrophic accident.

And even if there’s closer regulation of BSL-4 labs, that doesn’t completely solve the problem. Researchers working at BSL-3 labs (a less restrictive environment) in Wisconsin and the Netherlands manufactured a new strain of bird flu that spreads more easily among mammals, including ourselves.

The risks of a man-made pathogen disaster are also higher during the covid-19 pandemic because a huge number of people who are not career coronavirus specialists are now working with coronaviruses. That rapid scaling-up was essential to quick scientific breakthroughs. But it also increases risk — not just of an accident. There’s also the concern that this could make it easier for rogue states or terrorist groups to exploit newly developed scientific capabilities to unleash new, deadly pathogens on the world.

Over the past year, we’ve all learned the hard way that pandemics are crippling, horrific events. So while we should avoid excess restrictions on scientific inquiry, we should at least work toward greater oversight — at the very least, by creating a body that will conduct a more stringent risk-reward assessment while managing dangerous research.

After all, when it comes to pandemics, what happens in Wuhan — or in Wisconsin — can affect everyone on the planet. Knowing that, as we now do, should compel us to end the current hands-off attitude toward pathogen research. We need a new international body that has the budget — and the teeth — to help stave off the next pandemic.

Brian Klaas is an associate professor of global politics at University College London, where he focuses on democracy, authoritarianism, and American politics and foreign policy. He is the co-author of "How to Rig an Election" and the author of "The Despot's Apprentice" and "The Despot's Accomplice."

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