You Should Be Afraid of the Next ‘Lab Leak’

Is that world better off with or without high-containment biolabs? It’s a question not easily resolved. The work that goes on inside them involves a nontrivial degree of risk, which is why NEIDL, with its vaults and barricades and bulwarks — including its operational protocols — resembles a modern-day citadel. Yet no amount of engineering, infrastructural or human, can reduce to zero the chance of bad things coming out of biolabs. On the other hand, without them, we would lack all sorts of treatments for diseases like Covid-19 and Ebola. For now, the world seems to agree that we need these facilities.

Next summer, the C.D.C. will break ground on a new high-containment laboratory complex on its campus in Atlanta. One ambition is to supplement an aging biolab with a five-story, state-of-the-art facility that includes two Level 3 suites and six Level 4 suites. These will be largely dedicated to studying viruses with more fearsome fatality rates: Ebola, Nipah, Marburg, Chapare. Construction will take about three years, followed by a two-year commissioning process to ensure safety expectations are met. The cost has been reported to be at least $350 million — a significant jump from the $280 million (adjusted for inflation) that built the NEIDL facilities. Melissa Pearce, who will oversee the new lab, told me that she and her C.D.C. colleagues have toured North American facilities in recent years to survey current best practices and design ideas.

Ideas that are too new won’t necessarily be adopted. “When you’re designing a Biosafety Level 4, the thought of using new technology tends to give you pause,” Pearce told me. “It’s like the first year of a brand-new model of a car — you tend to not want to buy that, because there are probably some bugs that need to get worked out.” So, many of the improvements in Atlanta are likely to be incremental. Some of the researchers on the planning team believe that the spaces in current Level 4 labs are too narrow, for example, so there will be more room within new suites for workers to move around freely. A new chemical shower off the hallway will allow the staff to sanitize equipment more efficiently.

To talk to people at the C.D.C. is to be struck by how close to the next pandemic they think we might be — and how important, should a little-known infectious agent again explode in the general population, the research done on exotic viruses in containment there and elsewhere will be in directing us toward therapies or a cure. That’s the expectation at NEIDL, too, where Mühlberger has recently been working with the Lloviu virus, a relative of Ebola, which was first identified in bats in Eastern Europe 10 years ago. A group in rural Hungary extracts small amounts of blood from local bat colonies, searching for Lloviu. If the virus is present, the group sequences and sends the genetic information to her. She then compares its viral properties with other pathogens to better understand potential dangers. “We don’t know yet whether it causes disease in humans or not,” she said. “But if it causes disease, about 200 million people live in the area where these bats roam.”

When I asked Joel Montgomery, the head of the viral special pathogens branch at the C.D.C., whether our awareness of new pathogens is a result of improved surveillance or of more viruses having increased opportunities to jump into humans, he seemed to think both factors were responsible. The ability to test new viruses, thanks to nucleic-acid-sequencing capabilities, is far better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. “But I think we are interacting with our environment much more now than we have before, and just the sheer number of people on the planet has increased,” he said, which also affects population densities. “And so we’re going to see outbreaks — epidemics, pandemics — happening more frequently. It most certainly will happen.”

Our high-containment facilities, moreover, may have to deal with threats hatched in labs as well as what comes from nature. Take, for example, pox diseases. The C.D.C.’s campus in Atlanta is home to one of two Level 4 labs left in the world that harbors the live variola virus, which causes smallpox and was declared eradicated globally in 1980. (The other cache is in Russia.) Victoria Olson, a deputy director of lab science and safety at the C.D.C., told me that the lab keeps samples because studies using a live virus could help scientists develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines should smallpox re-emerge, or should a similar poxvirus appear. Monkey pox, which has caused recent outbreaks in Africa, where it has a fatality rate of 10 percent, is already a serious concern; Alaska pox was just identified in 2015. More alarming, perhaps, is the potential that someone outside the world of known biolabs might cook up a version of a poxvirus, using the tools of genetic engineering. Smallpox had an average case-fatality rate of about 30 percent; Americans have not been immunized against it since 1972. A synthetic smallpox — or even a synthetic super smallpox, which could be deadlier than the original — is not much of an intellectual leap.

It’s a frightening notion, of course. But one premise behind biolabs is to be ready — ready to test new vaccines and therapeutics, ready to apply insights from old pathogens to new ones. And even in an age of vast computing power, there are no expectations — by either Corley at NEIDL or those I spoke with at the C.D.C. — that scientists will be able to make computational models as effective as the painstaking studies being done in Level 4 labs. That seems reason enough to keep striving to quantify the risks and improve the safety of the work being done there: If our containment research is not replaceable by digital simulations, and if our pathogenic enemies are real and growing in number, it may be best to keep them close when we can — to keep them in, that is, rather than out.


Jon Gertner has been writing about science and technology for the magazine since 2003. His most recent article examined how CO2 can be incorporated into products to make an impact on climate change.

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