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Scientists fear future leaks as top-level labs proliferate

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Maximum security laboratories used to carry out the most dangerous biological research have proliferated in the past decade, scientists say, warning that lax controls at some locations could lead to another pandemic. 

At least 59 maximum biosafety level 4 labs (BSL-4) are planned, under construction or in operation across the world, spanning 23 countries including the UK, US, China, India, Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire. They include the Chinese facility at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, now at the centre of a renewed US intelligence investigation into whether Covid-19 could have leaked from its lab.

Gregory Koblentz, an associate professor of biodefence at George Mason University, and Filippa Lentzos at King’s College London, who mapped the facilities, found that of the 42 labs where planning data was available, half were built in the last decade.

Three-quarters of all the BSL-4 labs were in urban centres. And only three of the 23 countries have national policies that provide oversight of so-called dual-use research, where experiments that are conducted for civilian purposes can also be adapted for military ends.

“Reporting is getting better certainly in some countries such as the UK and US where there has been media coverage of this, but we’re not yet where we want to be,” said Lentzos, who is an expert in science and international security. “The more work that is going on, the more accidents will happen.”

The rapid expansion of such facilities, particularly in countries like China, has heightened concerns about leaks of dangerous substances.

Maximum security bio-laboratories around the world

“The larger the number of institutions and the larger the number of individuals with access to these dangerous agents, the greater the risk,” said Richard Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. “Accidents and leaks already happen in very large numbers, especially in places that have weaker biosafety standards. We need to strengthen biosafety and biosecurity rules around the world.”

US intelligence officials are currently investigating whether the Wuhan Institute could have played any role in the origins of Covid-19. The Chinese facility hosts one of no more than six BSL-4 labs in the world that had been conducting contentious “gain of function” research on bat-related pathogens before the pandemic, according to Ebright.

Whatever the US agencies conclude, Covid-19 has already focused attention on biomedical research into deadly pathogens, much of which is subject to no international policing or oversight.

According to the Global Health Security Index, which is referenced by Koblentz and Lentzos, just under a quarter of countries with labs operating at BSL-4 have “high” levels of biosecurity preparedness, such as the US and UK. Around a third, including China, have “medium” levels, while 41 per cent have “low” levels, such as South Africa.

Lentzos and Koblentz’s research adds to existing worries among many scientists about the already high number of accidents involving biomedical research, even at the most secure facilities. 

In the US, the health department and the Centers for Disease Control jointly monitor the use of 67 different types of toxins and other potentially dangerous materials. Their latest report found that in the US in 2019, such substances were lost 13 times and accidentally released 219 times. This led to over 1,000 people undergoing medical assessments, and some taking preventive drugs. None however contracted identified illnesses as a result.

US surveillance of its domestic facilities was stepped up after 2001, when an attacker killed five people by sending anthrax believed to have come from the US army medical research lab at Fort Detrick to several media outlets and two members of Congress. 

US surveillance of its domestic facilities was stepped up after 2001, when anthrax believed to have come from a US army medical research lab was sent to media outlets and two members of Congress 
US surveillance of its domestic facilities was stepped up after 2001 when anthrax, believed to have come from a US army medical research lab, was sent to media outlets and two members of Congress  © Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty

The 2001 anthrax attacks are not the only example of a failure of lab security in recent decades. 

In 2004, nine people were infected with Sars and one person died after two researchers were separately exposed to the virus while working at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing. In November 2019, just a month before the first confirmed case of Covid-19, more than 6,000 people in north-west China were infected with brucellosis, a bacterial disease with flu-like symptoms, after a leak at a vaccine plant.

China has been particularly keen to build more maximum-security labs in order to strengthen its scientific research capacity. Bai Chunli, the former president of the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote an article last year warning of the country’s “clear shortcomings” in its number of high-level biosafety labs in comparison with the US.

Guangdong province announced in May that it was planning to build between 25 to 30 biosafety level three labs and one BSL-4 lab, in the next five years.

But some Chinese officials have warned about poor security at existing facilities. In 2019 Yuan Zhiming, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 lab, wrote a review of the safety deficiencies in China’s laboratories. “Several high-level BSLs have insufficient operational funds for routine yet vital processes,” Yaun wrote, adding that maintenance costs were “generally neglected”.

“Due to the limited resources, some BSL-3 laboratories run on extremely minimal operational costs or in some cases none at all,” he said. In 2020, the central government passed a new law to improve national biosafety standards.

Critics say secrecy in China around the activities at such facilities makes it difficult to know how secure they are. In January 2020, Beijing told biosafety laboratories working on Sars-Cov-2 samples that they needed government clearance to release any information about the virus.

Critics say secrecy in China around the activities at facilities such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology makes it difficult to know how secure they are
Critics say secrecy in China around the activities at facilities such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology makes it difficult to know how secure they are © Shepherd Hou/EPA

Many scientists have said the Chinese approach to the international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 has shown the problems of running high-risk experiments in the country. In March, 13 countries criticised China for not allowing international experts full access to data and samples relating to the start of the pandemic.

“What we’ve seen so far in relation to the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a lab that’s not being open and transparent about the sorts of work it is doing,” said Lentzos. “When you have these sorts of labs you have to ensure they are open, transparent and that you engage with your peers.”



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Hong Kong-Taiwan spat threatens cross-Strait business

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Official representation between Hong Kong and Taiwan is set to end this year as mounting political tensions threaten one of the region’s most important trade and investment relationships.

The number of staff in Taiwan’s representative office in Hong Kong has dwindled over the past two years as the territory has stopped issuing visas, with the documents of those who remain due to expire by the end of November.

Hong Kong also abruptly suspended operations of its representative office in Taipei two weeks ago, ending its official presence there. The stand-off has grown so severe that Taipei has begun making contingency plans for a situation without on-the-ground representation in Hong Kong, two senior Taiwanese government officials said.

The breakdown in relations follows rising military tensions between Taiwan and China and a crackdown by Beijing on pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong that has led some activists in the territory to seek refuge in Taipei.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to annex it if the island fails to submit to its control indefinitely.

Analysts said that cutting official channels would undermine Hong Kong’s traditional role as a conduit for business and financial exchanges between Taiwan and China. Despite the dispute with Beijing over sovereignty, Taiwanese companies are among the largest foreign investors, employers and exporters in mainland China.

Taiwan air force personnel during the visit by President Tsai Ing-Wen
Military tensions between China and Taiwan have escalated, but investment and trade across the Taiwan Strait remains important to both countries © Ritchie B Tongo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A significant part of trade across the Taiwan Strait trade goes through Hong Kong, and many Taiwanese investors in China also use Hong Kong for financial, taxation and legal purposes. Last year, Taiwan was Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, while Hong Kong was Taiwan’s fifth-largest, with HK$504bn (US$65bn) in total bilateral trade. Taiwanese companies invested US$912m in Hong Kong in 2020, while Hong Kong-registered companies invested US$555m in Taiwan.

“Hong Kong has been a springboard for Taiwanese companies into mainland China and it has also been a springboard for Chinese [companies] into Taiwan,” said Liu Meng-chun, a research section director at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, a Taiwanese government-backed think-tank.

Tensions between Hong Kong and Taipei have escalated over the past two years after the territory started demanding Taiwanese diplomats sign documents declaring their country part of China as a precondition for being issued a visa.

After Taipei refused, the number of staff at its office in Hong Kong began to dwindle, from 20 to eight today, according to the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s cabinet level China policy body.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, said it was temporarily closing its Taipei office because “Taiwan’s series of actions in recent years has severely damaged Hong Kong-Taiwan relations”.

A Hong Kong government official suggested the suspension came on instructions from Beijing.

“I think Beijing is of the opinion that [Taiwan’s representative office] affects national security,” said Sung Yun-wing, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who is also a member of a semi-official think-tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, in Beijing.

“There have been reports that Taiwan has been encouraging the protest movement in Hong Kong, which has turned violent, so the protest movement is not only against the Hong Kong government but also Beijing,” said Sung. He added China was also concerned Taiwan was “sheltering” Hong Kong protesters.

While Taipei has been careful to avoid being seen as making it too easy for Hong Kong dissidents to flee to Taiwan, civil society groups in the country have supported the protest movement with advice, money and logistics. “This is something we cannot interfere with as they have done nothing illegal,” said a senior Taiwanese China policy official.

Historically, Hong Kong’s most important economic role in the Taiwan-China trade has been as a sea and air trans-shipment hub for Taiwanese companies to supply their factories in southern China with components.

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While analysts suggested that much of this commerce could continue even if official ties between Taiwan and Hong Kong were severed, they foresaw a sizeable impact on financial services, tourism and education.

“Hong Kong plays a very important role for Taiwanese private wealth management,” said Patrick Chen, head of Taiwan research at CLSA, the brokerage.

He said many Taiwanese individuals had accounts in Hong Kong, where the local units of Taiwan’s banks offered them offshore investment products not accessible under the island’s stricter regulations.

Liu of the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research said many Taiwanese enterprises kept profits from their China operations with their Hong Kong affiliates for tax purposes.

“These things would become a lot more cumbersome without official representation because you would have to start sending documents back and forth for notarisation,” Liu said.



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Nato leaders fret China’s Atlantic ambitions

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China’s growing military and economic presence in the Atlantic region is expected to trigger a rare warning from Nato leaders about the potential security threat when they meet on Monday, diplomats said. 

From joint Chinese drills with Russia to western worries that China wants to set up military bases in Africa, the Nato focus reflects China’s primacy among western foreign policy concerns, in particular those of US president Joe Biden.

“This is not about ‘Nato going to China’,” said Claudia Major, a defence analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “It’s about ‘China is coming to Europe and we have to do something about it’.”

In 2015, joint military drills with Russia brought the Chinese navy into the Mediterranean and the heart of Europe for the first time. Since then, China has built up the largest naval fleet in the world and invested in critical European infrastructure, including ports and telecoms networks.

“China [through its navy] has come through the Indian Ocean, into the Gulf, up to the Red Sea and they’ve been in the Mediterranean,” according to one British military official, who said China had not yet deployed submarines in the north Atlantic but could do so in future.

“You build nuclear submarines for range and stealth. And China does like to test the boundaries.”

The planned joint statement by the transatlantic security alliance, which diplomats said was still under discussion and subject to change, would be only the second time that Nato leaders have addressed the subject of China head-on. The first was in December 2019, at the insistence of the administration of Donald Trump.

But Biden is understood to be pushing for tougher language than the bland “opportunities and challenges” terminology used that time.

Nonetheless, how to deal with the issue represents a dilemma for the 30-member group, which was originally set up in 1949 to deal with cold war-era threats.

Internally, Nato countries are divided over how to treat China: member Hungary, for one, has good political relations with Beijing.

In addition, there is reluctance to confront Beijing in its own Pacific region — although the UK and France have followed the US in deploying ships to carry out freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.

Chinese and Russian marines take part in joint exercises in China’s Guangdong province
Chinese and Russian marines take part in joint exercises in China’s Guangdong province © Li Jin/Getty

China’s joint military operations with Russia are viewed as a particularly unwelcome development by some Nato members. As well as their annual military exercises, Beijing and Moscow have recently added joint missile defence drills and training for internal security forces.

“Their [the Chinese/Russian] relationship is transactional and pragmatic rather than ideological,” the UK military official said. “But working together in any form provides confidence. And confidence is something we should be wary of.”

As the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan US think-tank, warned in a January report: “Where Russian and Chinese interests align, Moscow and Beijing could eventually co-ordinate their combined capabilities to challenge US foreign policy.”

Another Nato anxiety is Africa, which China could use to expand its military presence in the Atlantic as part of its long-term goal to become a truly global armed force.

Gen Stephen Townsend, head of US Africa Command, told the US Senate in April that his “number-one global power competition concern” was what he described as Chinese efforts to establish a militarily useful naval facility on Africa’s west coast. “I am talking about a port where they can rearm with munitions and repair naval vessels,” he said.

Experts on the Chinese military said there was no evidence that Beijing was trying to establish such a west African base, yet. However, China has a base in Djibouti and has already used international anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden to train thousands of military personnel and to build military relations with countries outside its usual neighbourhood.

Each time a naval contingent finishes deployment, for example, it typically takes a detour on the way home. Some have visited the Mediterranean and the east and west coasts of Africa.

Another trend vexing Nato allies is the growing involvement of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure in Europe, such as through telecommunications company Huawei.

Chinese state shipping company Cosco also owns a controlling stake in Piraeus, Greece’s largest port, and is reportedly in talks to invest in a Hamburg port terminal.

Such economic ties complicate Nato’s efforts to create a unified approach on China — as do the political relationships between Beijing and friendly European leaders.

That creates the potential for clashes, with the tougher stance of Washington and Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, who last month warned that China was “coming to us” in areas including cyber space, Africa and the Arctic.

“There is a risk that having this discussion within Nato surfaces very uncomfortable differences between allies on how much China is actually perceived as a threat,” said Sarah Raine, an expert in geopolitics and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The fact is that there are countries which are seen by hawks as making very pro-China arguments within Nato, at least with regards to being robust but not confrontational.”

Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington



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Sponsors pull out of Copa America in Brazil over Covid risk

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A trio of corporate sponsors — Mastercard, Ambev and Diageo — have pulled their brands from the Copa America football competition in Brazil, which is due to kick off on Sunday in spite of the country’s raging Covid-19 crisis.

Latin America’s largest nation offered to host the regional tournament at the end of last month after previous co-hosts Argentina and Colombia cancelled. Buenos Aires cited an increasing number of coronavirus cases, while Bogotá blamed domestic protests.

Brazil’s decision to step in, which had the backing of rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro, drew censure from many medical figures and opposition politicians, who argued it risked further spreading the virus as the pandemic continues unabated in the country.

Mastercard said after careful analysis it had decided to remove its branding from this year’s Copa America, though it will remain a sponsor of the competition, which was already postponed in 2020.

British alcoholic drinks group Diageo, which owns Smirnoff, Guinness and Johnnie Walker, said it would stop all brand activities “given the current health situation in Brazil and in respect of the timing of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

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“The sponsorship terms were agreed upon when the event was scheduled to be held in Colombia and Argentina,” the company added. “Diageo reiterates its commitment to society, observing safety protocols and institutional actions that contribute to the mitigation of the pandemic.”

Brazilian beer maker Ambev, which is part of the world’s largest brewer AB InBev, said “its brands will not be present at the Copa America”. 

The votes of no confidence come as Brazil faces a potential third wave of Covid-19 infections with the cooler season setting in.

At more than 480,000 lives lost, the country has the second-highest death toll from the respiratory disease after the US. A shortage of jabs has stymied vaccination campaigns.

“We are still in a very serious situation,” said Marcelo Ramos, a researcher in public health at the Fiocruz biomedical institute. “When it was announced that Brazil would host the Copa America, the message was that we are in a calm situation, which does not correspond to reality.” 

However, the country’s health minister this week insisted holding the football competition would not generate any additional risk of contamination, since no fans would be attending matches. 

Bolsonaro has earned international opprobrium for his handling of the pandemic, which has included disparaging the use of masks and talking down the importance of vaccines.

But the former army captain received a boost when the Brazilian department store chain Havan, whose co-founder Luciano Hang is a vociferous supporter of the president, announced it would sponsor the tournament.

“I’m sure it will be a competition that will delight the entire Brazilian population”, he said.

This week Brazil’s supreme court rejected attempts to bar the country from hosting the Copa America. 

The Brazilian Football Confederation and the South American Football Confederation did not respond to requests for comment.



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