While there is currently no evidence that Sars-CoV-2 comes from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the birthplace of the pandemic, many experts are not only calling for the continuation of the pandemic. ‘investigation into its origin but also to better control of this type of laboratory.
The Wuhan Institute, a major research center on coronaviruses, but which Beijing vigorously denies is linked to the emergence of covid-19, notably has a laboratory called P4, for a class 4 pathogen.
“The ventilation systems are designed so that viruses cannot escape through the vents, the water leaving these buildings is treated with chemicals or high temperatures”
This classification reflects “the highest level of protection to prevent a pathogen from infecting a researcher or escaping into nature,” explains Gregory Koblentz, a bio-defense specialist at George Mason University in the United States.
According to a recent report he co-authored, just under 60 similar labs are in operation or under construction around the world. “The ventilation systems are designed so that viruses cannot escape through the vents, the water leaving these buildings is treated with chemicals or high temperatures,” he explains, for example. However, “there is no binding international standard,” according to this report.
“Human errors constitute 70% of errors in laboratories”,
And accidents have happened in the past. In 2004, two Chinese students were infected with SARS, another coronavirus on which work is being carried out at the National Institute of Virology in Beijing, where they work. Several cases are confirmed in their entourage, and the mother of one of them dies.
“Human errors make up 70% of laboratory errors,” says Lynn Klotz of the Center for Non-Proliferation and the Fight against Arms. For years, he has sounded the alarm on the risks posed by these structures.
The theory of a Sars-CoV-2 leak from the Wuhan Institute is, moreover, doubled, in the United States, with accusations of dangerous genetic manipulation, in particular relayed by certain elected Republican officials. They accuse the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) of having funded, in Wuhan, so-called “gain-of-function” research. The NIH denies having participated in such work.
What is it exactly? “Gain of function” research is deliberate modification “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. . A “broad” term which also includes common and harmless experiences. “This is why some people use the term ‘worrying gain in function'” to describe more problematic studies, “he explains.
This work can therefore aim to introduce changes to increase the virulence or transmissibility of a pathogen. What interest ? “If you can understand what mutations are required for an influenza virus circulating in birds to be able to infect humans, you can monitor whether these mutations are occurring in viruses in nature, and increase your vigilance towards them. », Writes Amesh Adalja, from the American Johns Hopkins University.
But, for some specialists, the risk of accident is too great, for little benefit. “The concern is that a modified organism with the potential to be transmitted between humans accidentally infects someone in a laboratory, and launches an uncontrolled chain of infections”, underlines Marc Lipsitch.
The first debates on the subject date back to 2011, with the work of researchers who created versions of the H5N1 avian influenza virus capable of being transmitted between mammals. A huge controversy erupts. Some fear that these techniques could be used by “bioterrorists”.
In the United States, under pressure from many scientists, including Marc Lipsitch, research into “gain of function” on influenza viruses and coronaviruses was suspended in 2014.
A measure finally lifted in 2017, with the establishment of a new framework: this work must now be studied, in advance, by a special committee, on a case-by-case basis. But the members of this committee are anonymous, and their deliberations are not public, deplores Marc Lipsitch. The process “is not transparent”.
For Alina Chan, molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, the laboratories conducting this research 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.
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