Experts have raised biosafety concerns amid a rapid rise in the number of labs handling dangerous pathogens.

As the debate over the potential origin of the COVID-19 pandemic rages, a group of researchers has released the Global BioLabs Report 2023. The report documented that the number of labs handling dangerous pathogens has increased to more than 100 worldwide.

It also found that the number of BSL4 labs that are either in operation, under construction or planned has risen by 10 in two years. The number now stands at 69 across 27 countries compared to 59 across 23 countries in 2021.

BSL4 labs are those designed and built to work safely and securely with the most dangerous bacteria and viruses that can cause serious diseases and for which no treatment or vaccines exist. They include the pathogens that cause Ebola, Marburg or Haemorrhagic fevers, for example.

A scientist in a secure lab
A scientist in a secure research laboratory. Experts have raised biosafety concerns amid a rapid rise in the number of labs handling dangerous pathogens.

About three-quarters of BSL4 labs can be found in urbanized areas, which increases the risks if any pathogen manages to escape.

“The key trend is that the number of labs handling dangerous pathogens is rapidly increasing around the world, but the boom has not been accompanied by sufficient oversight, and this raises biosafety and biosecurity concerns,” Filippa Lentzos, an author of the report with King’s College London, told Newsweek.

The number of BSL4 labs around the world has grown steadily since the 2001 anthrax letter attacks in the U.S. and the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia. Those events sparked concerns over the threat posed by naturally occurring and man-made biological threats.

The spread of COVID-19 has triggered another boom, with nine countries announcing plans to build 12 new BSL4 labs since the start of the pandemic. Most of the new labs will be built in Asia—China, India, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Japan. One African nation, Côte d’Ivoire, has also announced it is building one.

But Lentzos said many of the nations building the labs score poorly on bio-risk management.

“The Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire and Saudi Arabia are all building BSL4 labs for the first time but all score low on bio-risk management oversight,” she said. “However, since the labs are not yet completed and operational, there is still time to strengthen national laws and regulations on biosafety, biosecurity and dual-use research to bring them up to international standards.”

The largest concentration of BSL4 labs remains in Europe, which has 24 that are operational, with one under construction in the United Kingdom and another planned in Spain. North America has 15, one of which is under construction in the U.S., as well as two that are planned in Canada and the U.S.

The report also highlights the rise of so-called BSL3+ labs, of which there are 57 worldwide, mostly in Europe and North America.

According to the report, these labs “adopt additional physical and/or operational biosafety and biosecurity precautions when carrying out particularly risky research, but where the risks do not necessarily warrant BSL4 precautions.”

“There is very limited national biosafety guidance, and no international guidance, on what constitutes BSL3+ and little to no research demonstrating that these enhancements actually provide an adequate level of additional safety for the riskier research conducted in these labs,” the report reads.

The authors of the report call for urgent action to address the risks presented by BSL4 and BSL3+ labs.

“We need to make sure appropriate international standards are in place and that they’re being implemented,” Lentzos said. “And there are risks to building these labs, so we need to have a conversation, as a global community, about where the best places to build them are and how many BSL4 labs are enough.”

The report provides a number of concrete recommendations that labs, governments, non-governmental organizations and international organizations should adopt to strengthen biosecurity practices.

For example, the report recommends that states should incorporate voluntary global standards on bio-risk management into legislation and guidance. It also says that states that do not already have a national biosafety association should encourage and support the creation of one by the relevant professionals.

Another recommendation is that states should provide complete, regular and transparent reporting on their biolab activities. The report also provides a number of steps that the World Health Organization can take, including developing criteria and guidance for BSL3+ labs.

“We urgently need coordinated international action to address increasing bio-risks,” Gregory Koblentz, an author of the report with the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said in a statement.