Is there any evidence coronavirus was released from a lab?

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(BBC)US State Department cables show that embassy officials were worried about biosecurity at a virus lab in Wuhan, China. The lab is in the same city where the coronavirus outbreak first came to the world’s attention.

And President Donald Trump has said the US government is looking into unverified reports that the virus escaped from a laboratory.

So what, if anything, does this add to our understanding of the current pandemic?

What do the cables say?

The Washington Post newspaper has reported information obtained from diplomatic cables. They show that, in 2018, US science diplomats were sent on repeated visits to a Chinese research facility. Officials sent two warnings to Washington about inadequate safety at the lab.

The column says the officials were worried about safety and management weaknesses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and called for more help.

It also claims diplomats were concerned the lab’s research on bat coronaviruses could risk a new Sars-like pandemic. The newspaper says the cables fuelled more recent discussions in the US government about whether the WIV or another lab in Wuhan could have been the source of the virus behind the current pandemic.

In addition, Fox News has also issued a report promoting the lab origin theory. The outbreak came to light late last year when early cases were linked to a food market in Wuhan. But despite rampant online speculation, there is no evidence of any kind that the Sars-CoV-2 virus (which causes Covid-19) was released accidentally from a lab.

What kind of security measures do labs use?

Laboratories studying viruses and bacteria follow a system known as the BSL standards, where BSL stands for Biosafety Level.

There are four levels, which depend on the types of biological agents being studied and the containment precautions needed to isolate them.

Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1) is the lowest and is used by labs studying well-known biological agents that pose no threat to humans.

The containment precautions increase through the levels until you arrive at Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) which is the highest, and reserved for labs dealing with the most dangerous pathogens for which there are few available vaccines or treatments: ebola, Marburg virus and – in the case of just two institutes in the US and Russia – smallpox.

The BSL standards are applied internationally, but with some cosmetic variations.

“The Russians, for instance, label their highest containment labs as 1 and the lowest containment labs as 4, so the exact opposite of the standard, but the actual practices and infrastructure requirements are similar,” says Dr Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London.

Laboratories like this one in Hungary follow a system of standards with four levels. These levels are based on the precautions needed to handle different pathogens

But while the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a manual on the different levels, the standards are not enforced by any treaties.

“They’ve been developed to be in the best interest for working safely, for lab workers who don’t want to infect themselves or their community, and for the environment to avoid accidental releases,” says Dr Lentzos.

But she adds: “The ‘stick’ comes with the purse strings. If you want to do projects with international partners they require labs to be operating to certain standards. Or if you have products to sell in the market, or perform certain services, e.g. tests, then you are also required to operate to international standards.”

Indeed, the WIV had received funding from the US, along with assistance from American research institutes. The cables recommended giving them even more help.

What kinds of security failures were the cables describing?

The short answer is that we don’t know from the information provided in the Washington Post. But, generally-speaking, there are multiple ways that safety measures can be breached at labs dealing with biological agents.

According to Dr Lentzos, these include: “Who has access to the lab, the training and refresher-training of scientists and technicians, procedures for record-keeping, signage, inventory lists of pathogens, accident notification practices, emergency procedures.”

The outbreak came to light late last year when early cases were linked to a food market in Wuhan. But despite rampant online speculation, there is no evidence of any kind that the Sars-CoV-2 virus (which causes Covid-19) was released accidentally from a lab.

What kind of security measures do labs use?

Laboratories studying viruses and bacteria follow a system known as the BSL standards, where BSL stands for Biosafety Level.

There are four levels, which depend on the types of biological agents being studied and the containment precautions needed to isolate them.

Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1) is the lowest and is used by labs studying well-known biological agents that pose no threat to humans.

The containment precautions increase through the levels until you arrive at Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) which is the highest, and reserved for labs dealing with the most dangerous pathogens for which there are few available vaccines or treatments: ebola, Marburg virus and – in the case of just two institutes in the US and Russia – smallpox.

The BSL standards are applied internationally, but with some cosmetic variations.

“The Russians, for instance, label their highest containment labs as 1 and the lowest containment labs as 4, so the exact opposite of the standard, but the actual practices and infrastructure requirements are similar,” says Dr Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London.

Laboratories like this one in Hungary follow a system of standards with four levels. These levels are based on the precautions needed to handle different pathogens

But while the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a manual on the different levels, the standards are not enforced by any treaties.

“They’ve been developed to be in the best interest for working safely, for lab workers who don’t want to infect themselves or their community, and for the environment to avoid accidental releases,” says Dr Lentzos.

But she adds: “The ‘stick’ comes with the purse strings. If you want to do projects with international partners they require labs to be operating to certain standards. Or if you have products to sell in the market, or perform certain services, e.g. tests, then you are also required to operate to international standards.”

Indeed, the WIV had received funding from the US, along with assistance from American research institutes. The cables recommended giving them even more help.

What kinds of security failures were the cables describing?

The short answer is that we don’t know from the information provided in the Washington Post. But, generally-speaking, there are multiple ways that safety measures can be breached at labs dealing with biological agents.

According to Dr Lentzos, these include: “Who has access to the lab, the training and refresher-training of scientists and technicians, procedures for record-keeping, signage, inventory lists of pathogens, accident notification practices, emergency procedures.”

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