Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory, Wuhan Institute of Virology, China

The very first biosafety (level 4) BSL-4 laboratory in mainland China was opened in 2015, at a cost of around $44 million by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The BSL-4 laboratory took more than ten years to complete from its conception in 2003.

Biosafety (Level 4) BSL-4 Laboratory

The BSL-4 laboratory is dedicated to the research of severe infectious diseases. Biosafety laboratories are divided into four biosafety levels: BSL-1, BSL-2, BSL-3, and BSL-4. The National Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory has the highest level of biological safety currently operated by human beings and is known as the “aircraft carrier” in the field of virology. Except for China, the only countries that currently have BSL-4 laboratories in the world are France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and South Africa. 

The Wuhan Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory adopts a design concept similar to the box-in-box of the BSL-4 laboratory in Lyon, France. The entire laboratory is suspended and divided into 4 floors. From bottom to top, the bottom layer is for the sewage treatment and life support system; the second layer is the core biosafety level 4 laboratory; the third layer is the filter system; the interlayer between the second and third layers is the pipe system; the uppermost layer is the air conditioning system.

The Wuhan National Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory
The Wuhan National Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory

Wuhan National Biosafety Level 4 Lab Location

The National biosafety laboratory is located only 30 kilometres away from the South China Seafood Wholesale Market. This “wet market” facilitating live poultry trade, is widely believed to be the epicenter for transmission of viral pathogenic coronaviruses, specifically the zoonotic transfer of Covid-19 to human beings. The Market in Wuhan closed on the 1st January 2020 after it was found to be the most likely starting point for the outbreak of this coronavirus. Consequently, the Wuhan Institute biosafety (level 4) BSL-4 laboratory is analyzing the 2019–2020 New Coronary Pneumonia (COVlD-19) outbreak.

In 2017 scientists such as U.S. molecular biologist Richard H. Ebright expressed concern of previous escapes of the SARS virus from Chinese high-level containment laboratories in Beijing and the pace and scale of China’s plans for expansion into BSL–4 laboratories.

The Laboratory has strong ties to the Galveston National Laboratory in the University of Texas. In 2020, Ebright called the Institute a “world-class research institution that does world-class research in virology and immunology”.

The new coronavirus outbreak

In January 2020, the Institute of Virology was rumoured as a source for the 2019–20 coronavirus outbreak as a result of allegations of bioweapon research. According to a report by the Central News Agency quoting Bejing Today, Huang Yanling, a postgraduate student of the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was the first “patient zero” infected with the Wuhan pneumonia and began to spread the virus; however, researchers at the virus laboratory denied these claims and guaranteed that no one was infected by the virus.

The claim was debunked as a conspiracy theory by The Washington Post in a piece titled: “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research”.

The Post cited U.S. experts who explained why the Institute was not suitable for bioweapon research, that most countries had abandoned bioweapons as fruitless, and that there was no evidence that the virus was genetically engineered.

In February 2020, the New York Times reported that a team led by Shi Zhengli, a researcher at the Institute, were the first to identify, analyze and name the genetic sequence of the Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), and upload it to public databases for scientists around the world to understand.

During January and February 2020, the Institute was subject to further conspiracy theories, and concerns that it was the source of the outbreak through accidental leakage, which it publicly refuted. Members of the Institute’s research teams were also subject to various conspiracy theories, including Shi, who made various public statements defending the Institute.

The report quoting Beijing News today, states “The zero patient of Wuhan (New Crown) Viral Pneumonia is Huang Yanling, a researcher at Wuhan Institute of Virology and admitted to the Wuhan University Institute of Virology in 2012.” Published by the Wuhan Institute of Virology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences on November 4, 2011, the “2012 Recommended List of Exempted Postgraduates from the Examination for Proposed Admissions” shows that Huang Yanling is an academic master recommended by Southwest Jiaotong University.

According to the report, the Beijing News sought confirmation from Shi Zhengli, at Wuhan Virus Research Institute and Chen Quanzhang, a researcher at the influenza virus laboratory. Both said they were not sure whether the institute had a female graduate student named Huang Yanling, but could guarantee that nobody of the institute was infected. 

In this regards to the reports that the outbreak started at the South China Seafood Market, Caixin reported the following statement was made by Shi Zhengli: 

“The novel 2019 coronavirus is nature punishing the human race for keeping uncivilized living habits. I, Shi Zhengli, swear on my life that it has nothing to do with our laboratory”.

The exact source of the Wuhan coronavirus ( (2019-nCoV) outbreak is of yet unknown.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology

The Wuhan Institute of Virology established the Chinese Academy of Sciences Biosafety Research Center. The center was jointly constructed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Health Committee and the People’s Government of Hubei Province. Construction was approved in November 2018.

 The scientific research layout includes the Center for Molecular Virology and Pathology, the Center for Analytical Microbiology and Nanobiology, the Center for Resources and Application of Microbial Toxins, and the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. There are a total of 34 research subject groups.

The Institutes Network

The Institute is also comprised of the National Collection Center for Microbial and Toxin Collection designated by the National Health Commission, the National African Swine Fever Regional Laboratory, and the State Key Laboratory of Virology (Co-constructed with Wuhan University), China-Dutch-French Joint Laboratory of Invertebrate Virology, Key Laboratory of Highly Pathogenic Pathogens and Biosafety of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hubei HIV Screening Laboratory, Hubei Province Viral Disease Engineering technology research center and other research technology platforms. China’s only “China Virus Herbarium” with modern display means was created, and it was the first batch of “National Youth Science and Technology Demonstration Bases for Science and Technology”. Virologica Sinica, an English-language journal hosted by Wuhan Virus, is included in international authoritative databases such as SCI and PubMed, with an impact factor of 2.467 in 2019. At the same time, Wuhan Institute of Virology is also the anchor unit of the Hubei Province and Wuhan Institute of Microbiology and the Youth Working Committee of the Chinese Immunological Society.

The management system has five functional departments, including the General Office, the Organizational Personnel Office, the Scientific Research Planning Office, the Finance Office and the Graduate Office. The support system includes technical support departments such as Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, Public Technical Service Center, Network Information Center, and the Editorial Department of “Chinese Virology (English)”.

Wuhan Institute of Virology currently has two graduate education programs for first-level disciplines in biology and basic medicine, and five secondary education graduate programs for biochemistry and molecular biology, microbiology, immunology, pathogenic biology, and biology and medicine. There are two post-doctoral research mobile stations in biology and basic medicine.

Wuhan Institute using remdesivir

In February 2020, the Wuhan Institute of Virology applied for a patent in China for the use of remdesivir, the experimental drug developed by Gilead Sciences to treat SARS and Ebola. The Wuhan Institute found that remdesivir inhibited the virus invitro. The move raised some concerns regarding international intellectual property rights. In a statement, the virology institute said it would not exercise its new Chinese patent rights “if relevant foreign companies intend to contribute to the prevention and control of China’s epidemic”.

More about remdesivir: Remdesivir shows promise in treatment against COVID-19;

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