Wuhan expert’s concerns over lab safety

Published by The Mail on Sunday (3rd May, 2020)

One of China’s leading experts on biosafety has admitted there are widespread deficiencies in security and maintenance at his nation’s most secretive laboratories working with lethal diseases. 

Yuan Zhiming, a deputy director at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the head of its biosafety committee, highlighted serious concerns in an article published eight months ago. 

‘Most laboratories lack specialised biosafety managers and engineers,’ he wrote in the Journal Of Biosafety And Biosecurity, confessing that this left part-time researchers to fill the work of ‘skilled staff’ in high-security laboratories. 

‘This makes it difficult to identify and mitigate potential safety hazards in facility and equipment operation early enough,’ he added. 

Professor Yuan, the most senior Communist Party official in the Wuhan laboratory, was used to hit back last week at ‘malicious’ claims that the pandemic originated in his institute. Yet he wrote ‘the maintenance cost is generally neglected’ in his article last September, adding that due to ‘limited resources’ supposedly secure laboratories ‘run on extremely minimal operational costs – or in some cases, none at all’. 

The astonishing admission – in an article headlined ‘Current status and future challenges of high-level biosafety laboratories in China’ – will heighten concerns the novel coronavirus could have leaked from one of two laboratories in Wuhan. 

In a second article in the journal, which he co-authored with four colleagues in Wuhan, he accepted ‘the biosafety system needs to be further improved and strengthened’. 

Prof Yuan’s laboratory, ten miles from the infamous wildlife market blamed as the source of the outbreak, was designed with French help. It was the first laboratory in China with level 4 status, which are meant to be the most secure in the world. Scientists at the institute discovered that the virus’s genome was 96 per cent similar to one commonly found in bats. 

Last month, The Mail on Sunday published a picture from the laboratory showing a broken seal on the door of one of the refrigerators used to hold 1,500 strains of virus. 

A second laboratory in the city at the centre of the pandemic’s outbreak late last year – the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control – is also thought to have carried out experiments on animals such as bats to examine transmission of coronaviruses, although it only has level 2 status. 

Prof Yuan’s article said ‘several high-level BSLs [biosafety laboratories] have insufficient operational funds for routine yet vital processes’. Last week, the scientist, responding to Donald Trump’s briefing that the US was investigating to see if Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory, claimed rumours were being ‘pulled out of thin air’. 

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