The risk of a devastating viral outbreak has increased significantly with the rapid increase in laboratories that handle the world's deadliest diseases, a top biosecurity expert has warned.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) faces calls to reinforce its rules and send more inspectors to Biosafety Level 4 security labs, more than 100 of which are expected worldwide within a few years.
Without greater legislation and security there was a high chance of a ‘Covid 25’ or similar virus outbreak that would harm the world’s population, said biosecurity expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon. “The WHO say they stipulate this but it doesn’t seem anybody is policing it," he said "We need a complete review of biological security. We have to sort it out now otherwise we are going to be brought to our knees by Covid-25.”
The WHO assists countries in collecting dangerous specimens and ensures labs follow appropriate biosafety and biosecurity measures. This means that countries must meet commitments under the International Health Regulations.
The number of Level 4 labs has risen from only a handful a few decades ago to around 70 and will total more than 100 in a few years. Countries such as Iran, Syria, Sudan and North Korea are all understood to have or have been developing the labs along with India and the Philippines.
"There has been an 'eruption in growth' of Level 4 labs," Mr De Bretton-Gordon told The National. "Recent developments in the pharmaceutical industry have seen them appear all over the world dealing with the deadliest pathogens. That's a real concern."
The high-security Level 4 labs contain viruses that can be easily transmitted, causing fatal disease in humans for which there is no available vaccine or cure. Among other deadly pathogens, they will hold stores of Ebola, plague, anthrax bacteria and Marburg virus for research purposes. Many are built in earthquake and bombproof bunkers and are protected by the highest level of security.
Early Level 4 labs were started by militaries researching biological warfare but this was outlawed by the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. Under the UN charter, proliferation of biological weapons “constitutes a threat to international peace and security”. States are obliged to prevent the manufacture or development of biological weapons.
But without tougher laws and regulations there are concerns that countries, terrorists or criminals could deliberately or accidentally release a deadly virus on the world population.
Outside established labs in Europe and the United States there are worries about security elsewhere, especially over unsubstantiated reports that Covid-19 might have escaped from the Level 4 lab in Wuhan, China.
Mr De Bretton-Gordon, who helped tackle ISIS’s biological and chemical programmes, has called for detailed legislation to govern development of labs.
“When it comes to protocols and legislation, biological is a very poor relation to the chemical world where you have the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is policed by the OPCW [Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] and has been very successful.”
The former British Army officer, who led Nato's rapid reaction Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Battalion, suggested the best way to pass laws was through the Biological Weapons Convention using weapons inspectors similar to the OPCW who have the remit to go to all countries.
The expert has already briefed the US Senate and British authorities about the proposal. He added: “The 1972 Convention is really very poor relation to chemical one. It’s poorly funded and doesn’t have anyone policing it because people thought bio was a thing of past.”
While research has been done on pandemics from SARS and MERS to Ebola it was thought scientists could handle a coronavirus outbreak.
“The thing about Covid is that it’s not very toxic and it was thought this would not create much trouble but we now know it’s brought the world to its knees and will take years to resolve it. Essentially we have been undone by a not very toxic pathogen.”