Great Time to Close Bio(un)safety Labs in America

by Sam Myszka

Dr. Francis Boyle is one of the world’s top bioterrorism experts and the Illinois law professor who drafted the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989. In 2015, he stated that America was in violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention; within this last year, he has publicly advocated for a nationwide shutdown of all biosafety level 3 and 4 labs. His recommendations deserve attention.

The scientific research being conducted in these biosafety labs (BSL-3, BSL-4) is a dark world. A brief perusal of available information on this topic is enough to give you nightmares. Although the stockpiling of biological weapons supposedly ended decades ago, research that incorporates genetically modifying or engineering high-risk organisms still goes on today. In fact, a 2014 moratorium on gain-of-function research was halted in 2017. Gain-of-function research entails the practice of genetically engineering biological agents to deliberately enhance their pathogenicity beyond the intensity of their natural predecessors. Some of the world’s most elite scientists, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, champion this research as necessary. It occurs under the justification of preempting a pandemic through the discovery of potential cures. However, it remains an incontrovertible fact that someone cannot have a biological weapon without first having the prophylactic. This is a two-way street. Additionally, it necessitates the creation of problems we supposedly want to prevent. 

The current pandemic, a bat coronavirus said to be derived from a wet market in Wuhan, serves as a grave reminder that humanity must stop manipulating and tinkering with deadly pathogens. We must find a different way to prepare for biosecurity threats and advance the peaceful application of science. If a natural virus can do this much damage to planetary civilization, it seems clear that the accidental or intentional release of an augmented high-risk biological agent from a BSL-3 or BSL-4 lab would imply even more serious consequences. COVID-19 itself will also probably be subjected to these forms of enhancement inside these labs into more deadly forms. Is this not crazy?

The case fatality rates between COVID-19 and Ebola virus disease can be compared to illustrate the big picture. The case fatality rate describes the proportion of people who die from a disease, typically acute infectious disease, out of the total number who are diagnosed with it. According to official estimates, the case fatality ratio of COVID-19 in the United States is hovering at around 1.81%. This means 181 people die from COVID-19 out of 10,000 who are infected. By contrast, Ebola, on the Select Agents and Toxins List of the Federal Select Agent Program (run by the CDC and USDA), has an average case fatality ratio of 50%. This means, on average, 1 out of every 2 people infected with Ebola dies. If Ebola has been or ever could be engineered to enhance its transmission capabilities, many more millions of lives could be at risk. This is a science fiction dystopia waiting to happen. 

Ebola’s natural form is dangerous enough. That is why it can only be studied within a BSL-4 laboratory. In fact, there are only 13 BSL-4 labs in America that are either already operational or under construction. In 2001, there were only 4. A number of other very dangerous pathogens are also only eligible for study in BSL-4 conditions. For imagery purposes, BSL-4 labs require technicians and researchers to utilize glove boxes and don full astronaut-style suits before they enter spaces containing these pathogens in order to prevent exposure.

Despite safety precautions, leaks and accidents are all too common. The internet is littered with reports of biosafety labs in America and across the world being admonished, reprimanded, fined and even temporarily shut down for serious safety oversights. The CDC’s own labs have some of the worst safety records and are very secretive about accidents. On the other side of the world, Singapore, Taiwan and China have had their own problems. Between summer of 2003 and spring of 2004, each one of these countries had incidents with the SARS virus that resulted in the infection of at least one person. (These infections were also initially “traced to” animal reservoirs.) More recently, State Department cables warned about safety issues and management oversights at the Wuhan Institute of Virology just within the past number of years. This institute is equipped with China’s first BSL-4 laboratory where they received millions of dollars in funding from Dr. Fauci’s NIAID to collect, surveil, and conduct controversial gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses. 

Closer to home, Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, controversially engineered the H1N1 flu virus to escape neutralizing antibodies in a BSL-2 lab. UW-Madison was criticized by international media for allowing this research to happen in such a low-level lab. Professor Richard Ebright, a biologist at Rutgers, stated that “Kawaoka, single-handedly, has rendered useless the billions of dollars and millions of person-hours expended in mass vaccination against the 2009 pandemic influenza virus and, single-handedly, has placed millions of lives at risk…”. This professor’s team at Madison has also recreated a bird flu only 3% different from the 1918 Spanish flu. An escape could mean another pandemic.

In addition, even when our government and scientists have altruistic intentions and ideal precautions, we risk creating technology that could get stolen and leveraged for geopolitical hegemony by the Chinese government. Our education systems have already been heavily infiltrated—which is where this research occurs. In fact, in January of 2020, two Chinese nationals and the Harvard Chemistry Department Chair were arrested by the FBI for stealing “biological research” (former) and aiding the Communist Chinese Party (former and latter). 

This research is too dangerous. Officials from the NIH halted our taxpayer funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for this risky gain-of-function coronavirus research in April of last year. This is the right thing to do. Write your representatives and tell them it’s time to stop funding death science.