The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been at the center of COVID-19 speculations across the world. Some of the theories say that the coronavirus originated from its lab and that its researchers secretly sold experimental animals in the wet market. CGTN reporter Hu Chao visited the Institute’s top bio-safety level lab and talked to a senior lab official there who dismissed the accusations.
In the outskirts of the city, one can find the Wuhan National Biosafety Lab housed within the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
HU CHAO CGTN “This national biosafety laboratory runs two levels of labs, P3 and P4. The P4 lab, the biosafety level 4 lab, is the top level. And for many, it may seem a bit mysterious. What does it look like and what happens inside? Now let’s find out.”
The letter “P” stands for pathogen, the higher the number after it, the more dangerous the pathogen.
A rating of P4 designates a lab as a maximum-security area. And the Wuhan bio-lab is one of few in the world with such a rating. Its director recalls how it was established.
YUAN ZHIMING Director, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory “The SARS outbreak in 2003 exposed weaknesses in China’s public health system. That was when we decided to start building a high-level biosafety lab.”
It was a project between China and France, one that took 15 years to complete. The lab became fully operational by 2018. So why did it take such a long time?
YUAN ZHIMING Director, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory “Aside from the technical complexities, we also had to set up relevant management systems and train relevant personnel to ensure safe operations. In 2018, we finally got national accreditation for experimental activities in the lab. This meant that China would have its own lab for research on deadly viruses. And China’s biosafety lab system began to take shape.”
Only qualified personnel are allowed inside the P4 lab, all of whom must have extensive biosafety training and experience.
As visitors, we were granted special access after identity and security checks. With the help of a staff member at the lab, we entered the P4 lab, but found ourselves confined to the hallways due to security requirements.
YUAN ZHIMING Director, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory “A P4 lab comes with a biosafety platform to ensure researchers are safe from the pathogens they work on and that the pathogens stay within the lab. We have a complex system for electricity, air filtration, emergency shower, automations, fire safety and life support. All these facilities work to ensure a negative-pressure confined space.”
The P4 lab is mainly used for research on deadly viruses, especially those without a known cure or a vaccine. It can take nearly half an hour for each person to enter or exit the lab.
Personnel must wear positive-pressure suits, which feature hoses for breathable air. All waste items will undergo biosafety disposal and sterilization via high temperature and pressure facilities.
YUAN ZHIMING Director, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory “Without authorization, not even a mosquito can sneak into the lab and none of our researchers can take even a drop of water or a piece of paper out of the lab. So, when some people speculated that we might take the experimental animals out to sell or that these animals might escape from our lab, they actually had no idea about the management and operations of our lab.”
A comprehensive safety check is conducted every year. The lab’s compound covers an area of more than 3,000 square meters. Its core area is over 1,000 square meters.
YUAN ZHIMING Director, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory “In fact, the lab is like a box within a box. People might envision it as a secretive black box. But as you can see, it’s a very open and transparent lab. People from the outside can see what goes on inside and vice versa. We hope to make it a platform for international exchanges and to see more foreign scientists come to work in our lab.”
Expectedly, Yuan gave his two cents on the theory that COVID-19 originated from the Wuhan lab.
YUAN ZHIMING Director, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory “Our lab has been operating safely and in compliance with regulations and laws. There have been no accidents of pathogen leaks or human infections. An outbreak and pandemic caused by any infectious disease is bound to be the focus of public attention. Because of the fear and feeling of helplessness and also the lack of information, many people would naturally link an area’s outbreak to its nearest lab. As they learn more about the situation and the lab, rumors will gradually dissipate.”
Yuan says the conspiracy theories have put many of the lab’s researchers under stress, even amid increased efforts to fight against it.
YUAN ZHIMING Director, Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory “All the scientific personnel, though being wronged and stressed, have been fully devoted themselves to the race against the virus. We’ve achieved good results in animal model establishment, vaccine development and antiserum production. Our test kits have been approved for production and application. Our results on antiviral drug screenings have also been included in the COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment protocols.”
Yuan also says an inactivated vaccine against COVID-19 developed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology has now entered the third phase of clinical trials. Hu Chao, CGTN, Wuhan.