SPIEZ, Switzerland (Reuters) – The setting is straight out of a spy thriller: crystal-clear waters below, the snow-capped Swiss Alps above and in between, an ultra-secure facility for researching pathogens deadliest in the world.
The Spiez lab, known for its chemical, biological and nuclear threat detective work since World War II, was commissioned last year by the World Health Organization to be the first in a global network high-security labs that will develop, store and share newly discovered microbes that could trigger the next pandemic.
WHO’s BioHub program was born in part out of frustration over the obstacles researchers faced in obtaining samples of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, first detected in China, to understand its dangers and develop tools to fight it.
But just over a year later, the scientists involved in the effort have encountered obstacles.
Political cartoons about world leaders
This includes securing the necessary safeguards to accept samples of coronavirus variants from multiple countries, the first phase of the project. Some of the biggest countries in the world might not cooperate. And there is not yet a mechanism to share samples to develop vaccines, treatments or tests without infringing intellectual property protections.
“If we have another pandemic like the coronavirus, the goal would be for it to stay where it started,” Isabel Hunger-Glaser, BioHub project manager at Spiez, told Reuters in a rare media interview at the lab. . Hence the need to get samples to the hub so that it can help scientists around the world assess the risk.
“We realized it’s a lot harder” than we thought, she said.
Spiez Lab’s exterior leaves no trace of the high-stakes work inside. Its angular architecture resembles European university buildings erected in the 1970s. Occasionally cows graze in the grassy central courtyard.
But the biosecurity officer keeps his shutters closed. Alarms go off if his door is open for more than a few seconds. He monitors multiple screens showing lab security cameras with the highest biosafety level (BSL) precautions.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, is studied in BSL-3 laboratories, the second highest security level. Samples of the virus used in the BioHub are stored in locked freezers, Hunger-Glaser said. A decreasing air pressure system means that clean air would flow into the most secure areas, rather than contaminated air flowing out, during a breach.
Scientists working with the coronavirus and other pathogens wear protective suits, sometimes with their own air supply. They work with samples in a hermetically sealed containment unit. Waste leaving the lab is superheated to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,830 F) to kill any pathogens that cling to it.
To date, Spiez has never had an accidental leak, according to the team. That reputation is a key part of why they were chosen as WHO’s first BioHub, Hunger-Glaser said.
Proximity to WHO headquarters, two hours from Geneva, also helped. WHO and the Swiss government are funding the annual budget of 600,000 Swiss francs ($626,000) for its first phase.
Researchers have always shared pathogens, and there are regional networks and repositories. But the process is ad hoc and often slow.
The sharing process has also been controversial, such as when researchers in rich countries get credit for the work of less well-connected scientists in developing countries.
“A lot of times you just swap gear with your buddies,” Hunger-Glaser said.
Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus MC department at Viroscience in the Netherlands, said it took her lab a month to get hold of SARS-CoV-2 after it emerged in China’s central city of Wuhan in December 2019.
Chinese researchers were quick to post a copy of the genetic sequence online, which helped researchers begin early work. But efforts to understand how a new virus transmits and how it responds to existing tools require living samples, the scientists said.
Luxembourg was the first country to share samples of novel coronavirus variants with the BioHub, followed by South Africa and Britain.
Luxembourg sent Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants, while the latter two countries shared Omicron, the WHO said.
Luxembourg obtained samples of Omicron from South Africa, via the hub, less than three weeks after its identification, allowing its researchers to begin assessing the risks of the now dominant strain. Portugal and Germany have also received samples of Omicron.
But Peru, El Salvador, Thailand and Egypt, all of which signaled in early 2022 that they wanted to send variants found in the country, are still waiting, mainly because it is unclear which official from each country should provide the necessary legal safeguards, Hunger- said Glaser.
There is no international protocol on who should sign forms providing security details and user agreements, she added. None of the four countries responded to requests for comment.
The WHO and Hunger-Glaser stressed that the project is a pilot project and that they have already accelerated certain processes.
Another challenge is how to share samples used in research that could lead to commercial gain, such as vaccine development. BioHub samples are shared for free to provide broad access. However, this raises potential problems if, for example, drugmakers profit from the discoveries of unpaid researchers.
The WHO plans to tackle this problem in the longer term and bring labs online in every region of the world, but it is not yet clear when or how this will be funded. The voluntary nature of the project can also slow it down.
“Some countries will never ship virus, or it can be extremely difficult – China, Indonesia, Brazil,” Koopmans said, referring to their stance during recent outbreaks. None of the three responded to requests for comment.
The project also comes amid heightened attention to labs around the world after unproven claims in some Western countries that a leak from a high-security lab in Wuhan may have triggered the COVID-19 pandemic, a a charge that China and most international scientists have rejected.
Hunger-Glaser said thinking about emerging threats needs to change after COVID-19.
“If this is a real emergency, the WHO should even take a plane” to transport the virus to the scientists, she said.
“If you can prevent the spread, it’s worth it.”
(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Nick Macfie)
Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.