The number of labs handling deadly germs has risen to more than 100 globally, raising concerns among scientists that this boom is not being matched by security and safety regulations.
A report published by Kings College London has found that the number of BSL4 (biosafety level 4) labs – which handle pathogens of the higest risk – in operation, under construction or planned has grown by 10 in two years, from 59 across 23 countries in 2021 to 69 across 27 countries, it said.
But this boom has not been accompanied by sufficient oversight, raising biosafety and biosecurity concerns, the Global BioLabs Report 2023 added.
Dr Filippa Lentzos, who is the author of the report, said: “We’re seeing rapid expansion of max containment labs in Asia but many of these countries score poorly on biorisk management.
“We found biosafety governance to be stronger than biosecurity, while the weakest component is the management of dual-use research of concern.”
She added: “There has been a global boom in construction of labs handling dangerous pathogens, but this has not been accompanied by sufficient biosafety and biosecurity oversight.
“Our new report documents for the first time the current picture around the world and sets out clear recommendations to help address current shortcomings that need to be implemented at the local, national and international level.”
The report also found that three-quarters of these labs are in urbanised areas, which increases the risk of any accidental releases of pathogens having a more devastating impact.
It also highlights the rise in use of a new type of high-containment lab, known as BSL3+ or BSL3-enhanced, which adopts additional precautions when carrying out especially risky research.
There are currently 57 BSL3+ labs around the world – mainly in Europe and most in urban centres.
But the scientists said there are very few guidelines for what constitutes a BSL3+ lab and no evidence that the measures being taken in these facilities are adequate for the research they carry out.
Project-co lead Dr Gregory Koblentz of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in the US, said: “We urgently need coordinated international action to address increasing biorisks.”
The scientists are calling for labs conducting high-risk work to adopt the international standard for biorisk management as well as for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop criteria and guidance for BSL3+ labs.
It comes as the ongoing debate into the origins of Covid-19 continues, with many questioning whether Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – accidentally emerged from a lab.