World

Inside the super-secure Swiss lab, try to stop the next pandemic – SABC News

The setting is straight out of a spy thriller: Crystal water below, snow-capped Swiss Alps above and between, a super-secure facility researching the world’s deadliest pathogens.

Spiez Laboratory, known for its detective work on chemical, biological and nuclear threats since World War II, was commissioned by the World Health Organization last year to be the first in a global network of high-security laboratories that will grow, store and diele discovered microbes that could unleash the next pandemic.

The 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 discovered in China, to understand the dangers and developing tools to combat it.

But just over a year later, scientists involved in the effort have encountered obstacles.

These include securing guarantees necessary to accept samples of coronavirus variants from different countries, the first phase of the project. Some of the world’s biggest countries may not cooperate. And there is still no mechanism to share samples for developing vaccines, treatments or tests without running afoul of intellectual property protections.

“If we have another pandemic like coronavirus, the goal would be for it to stay where it started,” Isabel Hunger-Glaser, head of the BioHub project at Spiez, told Reuters in a rare media interview at the laboratory. Hence the need to get samples to the hub so it can help scientists worldwide assess the risk.

“We’ve realized it’s a lot harder” than we thought, she said.

SAFETY IN THE MOUNTAINS

Spiez Lab’s exterior gives no hint of the high-stakes work inside. The angular architecture resembles European university buildings erected in the 1970s. Sometimes cows graze in the grassy central courtyard.

But the biosecurity officer in charge keeps his blinds closed. Alarms go off if his door is left open for more than a few seconds. He monitors several screens with security camera views of the labs with the utmost Biosafety Level (BSL) precautions.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, is studied in BSL-3 laboratories, the second highest level of safety. Samples of the virus used in the BioHub are stored in locked freezers, Hunger-Glaser said. A system of decreasing air pressure means that clean air would flow into the most secure areas, instead of polluted air flowing out, in a breach.

Scientists working with 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 pathogens that cling to it.

So far, Spiez has never had an accidental leak, the team says. That reputation is an important part of why they were chosen as the WHO’s first BioHub, Hunger-Glaser said.

The proximity of WHO headquarters, two hours away in Geneva, also helped. The 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 some existing networks and regional repositories. But the process is ad hoc and often slow.

The sharing process has also been controversial, for example when researchers in rich countries get credit for the work of less well-connected scientists in developing countries.

“A lot of times you’re just exchanging material with your buddies,” Hunger-Glaser said.

Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience in the Netherlands, said it took a month for her laboratory to obtain SARS-CoV-2 after it emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

Chinese researchers were quick to post a copy of the genetic sequence online, helping researchers begin early work. But efforts to understand how a new virus transmits and how it responds to existing tools require live samples, scientists said.

EARLY CHALLENGES

Luxembourg was the first country to share samples of new variants of coronavirus with the BioHub, followed by South Africa and Britain.

Luxembourg sent in Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants, while the latter two countries shared Omicron, WHO said.

Luxembourg received Omicron samples from South Africa, via the hub, less than three weeks after it was identified, allowing its researchers to begin assessing the risks of the now dominant strain. Portugal and Germany also received Omicron samples.

But Peru, El Salvador, Thailand and Egypt, which all signaled in early 2022 that they wanted to send in variants found domestically, are still waiting, mainly because it is unclear which official in each country should provide the necessary legal guarantees , Hunger- Glaser said.

There is no international protocol for who should sign the forms with security details and usage agreements, she added. None of the four countries responded to requests for comment.

Both WHO and Hunger-Glaser emphasized that the project is a pilot, and they have already accelerated certain processes.

Another challenge is how to share samples that can be used in research that can lead to commercial profit, such as vaccine development. BioHub samples are shared freely to provide broad access. However, this raises potential problems if, for example, drug makers profit from the discoveries of uncompensated researchers.

WHO plans to tackle this longer term, bringing laboratories in every global region online, but it is not yet clear when and how this will be funded. The voluntary nature of the project can also hold it back.

“Some countries will never transmit viruses, or it can be extremely difficult – China, Indonesia, Brazil,” Koopmans said, referring to their position in recent outbreaks. None of the three responded to requests for comment.

The project also comes amid heightened attention to labs worldwide following unproven claims in some Western countries that a leak from a high-security lab in Wuhan may have fueled the COVID-19 pandemic, an allegation that China and most international scientists have refused.

Hunger-Glaser said thinking about emerging threats needs to change post-COVID-19.

“If it’s a real emergency, the WHO should even get a plane” to transport the virus to scientists, she said.

“If you can avoid the spread, it’s worth it.”

Inside the super-secure Swiss lab, try to stop the next pandemic – SABC News

Source link Inside the super-secure Swiss lab, try to stop the next pandemic – SABC News

Back to top button