This morning, the Washington Post offers a thorough history of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and includes a link to a June story about the institution’s concern about infiltration by foreign spies.
In May 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s staff filed into an old-fashioned lecture hall. A local representative of China’s National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets was at the podium.
The official, Tang Kaihong, discussed the national security risks of the institute’s research and warned of infiltration efforts by foreign spies, according to an account published by the institute’s parent organization, the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The researchers signed pledges to protect confidential information.
Why would a civilian medical research institution that is in full compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, and not doing anything with any military or bioweapon applications, that is supposedly researching viruses in order to develop better treatments and protect people from viruses, be so worried about foreign spies?
The Post story begins with a sweeping assurance from Wuhan Institute of Virology deputy director Yuan Zhiming: “The Wuhan P4 lab has never seen any laboratory leaks or human infections since it began operating in 2018.”
Even aside from suspicions aroused by the COVID-19 pandemic beginning right outside one of the three institutions on earth doing gain-of-function research on coronaviruses found in bats, it is extremely unlikely that the Wuhan P4 lab or the WIV as an institution have never had a laboratory leak or human infection. They’re just too common elsewhere – and there are too many other examples of labs and governments attempting cover them up – to trust Yuan’s assurance.
The causes of [Laboratory Acquired Infections]may be difficult to recognize at the time of the exposure. There may be no definitive moment that indicates an LAI potential, such as a needle stick, animal bite, or dropped pipette. It is estimated that only 20 percent of the causes of LAIs are actually recognized. To add to this problem, many countries under-report accidents or may claim to have never had an LAI. [Dr. Barbara Johnson (Biosafety Biosecurity International)] noted that to say that a lab has never had an LAI may mean that the operators have never been able to account for it, that it has never been investigated, or that it has never been reported.
Johnson pointed out, however, that the extensive regulatory framework in the United States is not replicated in many places elsewhere in the world. The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Western Pacific regional office investigated a number of biosafety incidents that occurred in countries under their jurisdiction. They found problems with laboratory management and lack of biosafety policies, procedures, training, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and supervision of less experienced lab personnel. Many laboratories do not have occupational health and safety organizations or programs, and there is also a need for greater quality control and assurance. Many nations do not have codified standards for laboratory work on pathogens. The WHO recommended the development of legislation for national biosafety standards, procedures for timely reporting and follow-up of accidents, worker health monitoring and countermeasures, accreditation or certification of Biosafety Level (BSL)-3 labs, and inventories of infectious agents.
Back in 2015, an extensive USA Today investigation found unnerving results, just looking at U.S. labs.
Vials of bioterror bacteria have gone missing. Lab mice infected with deadly viruses have escaped, and wild rodents have been found making nests with research waste. Cattle infected in a university’s vaccine experiments were repeatedly sent to slaughter and their meat sold for human consumption. Gear meant to protect lab workers from lethal viruses such as Ebola and bird flu has failed, repeatedly.
A USA TODAY Network investigation reveals that hundreds of lab mistakes, safety violations and near-miss incidents have occurred in biological laboratories coast to coast in recent years, putting scientists, their colleagues and sometimes even the public at risk.
Oversight of biological research labs is fragmented, often secretive and largely self-policing, the investigation found. And even when research facilities commit the most egregious safety or security breaches — as more than 100 labs have — federal regulators keep their names secret.
The International Society for Infectious Diseases concluded in 2018:
The actual risk of a laboratory-acquired infection is difficult to measure because there is no systematic reporting at a government or professional society level to monitor the number of laboratory workers that acquire infections associated with the workplace. Reports in the literature have all been survey-based. Sulkin and Pike reported on more than 4,000 laboratory-associated infections between 1949 and 1974, with a mortality of 4.1 percent. During those years, brucellosis, Q fever, typhoid fever, and hepatitis were the most common causes of LAIs. More recent surveys have revealed a shift in the pattern of LAIs from the early collective studies. A 2002-2004 survey of clinical laboratory directors revealed that approximately one-third of laboratories reported at least one LAI….
The Chinese government’s answers have not changed since early 2020; their laboratories and researchers are just too careful, too diligent, too smart and too cautious to ever make a mistake as consequential as this. But of course, they can’t allow international investigators to return, or turn over data about the earliest COVID-19 patients.
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