Wuhan lab chiefs insist facility is secure as coronavirus claims circulate

Alice Yan

Leading officials at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have insisted they adhere to strict security standards following claims the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 originated from the lab.

The facility includes a level four laboratory – the highest biosecurity level – which is authorised to carry out research on the most dangerous pathogens, such as Ebola, West African Lassa virus and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever viruses.

Scientists have dismissed the possibility that the virus was engineered but the theory that it accidentally leaked from the lab continues to circulate, with US President Donald Trump saying he had seen evidence to support the claim.

“We have adopted a series of measures to ensure no virus can leave our lab,” Yuan Zhiming, director of Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, told Science and Technology Daily on Sunday.

Yuan said the lab had a strict management system in place, including stringent procedures on handling waste and infectious materials.

All researchers who need to do experiments at the lab need to pass annual physical and psychological health evaluations and those who are licensed to work in the level four lab need to get approval before entering it.

Staff have to follow strict safety procedures whenever they enter the lab and must guarantee that their physical condition is normal, including blood pressure and body temperature.

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They must also sign a registry form and inform a monitoring centre whenever they enter and leave the lab.

Yuan also said that no one was allowed to enter the lab alone and more than one person must be inside whenever experiments were being carried out, while researchers could only contact the outside world via a monitoring centre while they were inside the facility.

The protective clothing they wear has to be disinfected and then washed with clean water every time they leave.

Yuan said the lab used negative pressure technology so that the air inside the lab could not circulate outside it and spread deadly pathogens.

The Wuhan facility includes a level four biosecurity lab. Photo: AFP

Waste air has to be filtered twice before release to ensure it is safe and waste water has to pass through sewage treatment and high-temperature systems.

Other contaminated waste has to be treated in high-temperature and high-pressure machines and then disposed of by companies that are licensed to handle medical waste.

The director also said the lab’s equipment had to undergo an annual inspection carried out by third-party institutions.

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Researchers at the lab have been working extended hours in the race to develop a vaccine and treatment for Covid-19.

Guan Wuxiang, vice-director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said researchers had been studying the coronavirus since December 30, when the first samples of a “pneumonia from an unidentified source” were sent over by the city’s Jinyintan hospital.

Since then, more than 120 scientists working in 12 different teams have been studying the virus, working on areas such as its cause and origins and drug screening.

Guan said many researchers stayed inside the lab for up to six hours at a time, and they were not able to eat, drink or go to the toilet throughout.

So far the institute has tested 6,500 samples, and is developing an vaccine, which has started clinical trials.

Guan said China started building the Wuhan lab after the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) prompted it to improve its infectious disease monitoring.

“Predicting virus outbreaks is very difficult,” said Guan. “Humankind still does not have enough understanding of viruses that exist in nature and the rules of their occurrence, development, spread, and pathogenesis.”

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