Biosafety Laboratory in Spiez
A staff member of Spiez Laboratory in a BSL-3 lab removes a cell culture bottle infected with viruses from the safety cabinet and places it in a transport box in a bio-containment facility that is available to the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a repository for SARS-CoV-2 viruses or other pathogens with epidemic or pandemic potential, in this handout picture taken June 1, 2022, in Spiez, Switzerland. Andrea Campiche/Spiez Laboratory/Handout via REUTERS Photo: Reuters/ANDREA CAMPICHE/SPIEZ LABORATORY
health

Inside the super-secure Swiss lab trying to stop the next pandemic

12 Comments
By Jennifer Rigby

The setting is straight from a spy thriller: Crystal waters below, snow-capped Swiss Alps above and in 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 Two, was tasked last year by the World Health Organization to be the first in a global network of high-security laboratories that will grow, store and share newly discovered microbes that could unleash the next pandemic.

The WHO's BioHub program was, in part, born of frustration over the hurdles researchers faced in getting 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, scientists involved in the effort have encountered hurdles.

These include securing guarantees needed to accept coronavirus variant samples from several countries, the first phase of the project. Some of the world's biggest countries might not cooperate. And there is no mechanism yet 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 it stays wherever it starts," Isabel Hunger-Glaser, head of the BioHub project at Spiez, told Reuters in a rare media interview at the lab. Hence the need to get samples to the hub so it can help scientists worldwide assess the risk.

"We have realised it's much more difficult" than we had thought, she said.

SAFETY IN THE MOUNTAINS

Spiez Lab's exterior provides no hint of the high-stakes work inside. Its angular architecture resembles European university buildings erected in the 1970s. At times, cows graze on the grassy central courtyard.

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

SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID, is studied in BSL-3 labs, the second-highest security level. Samples of the virus used in the BioHub are stored in locked freezers, said Hunger-Glaser. A system of decreasing air pressure means clean air would flow into the most secure areas, rather than contaminated 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 super-heated at up to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,830 F) to kill pathogens clinging to it.

To date, Spiez has never had an accidental leak, the team say. That reputation is a key part of why they were chosen as the WHO's first BioHub, said Hunger-Glaser.

The proximity to WHO headquarters, two hours away in Geneva, helped too. The WHO and Swiss government are funding the annual 600,000 Swiss franc ($626,000) budget 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 instance when researchers in wealthy countries get credit for the work of less well-connected scientists in developing nations.

"Often you just exchanged material with your buddies," said Hunger-Glaser.

Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience in the Netherlands, said it took a month for her lab to get hold of 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, which helped researchers begin early work. But efforts to understand how a new virus transmits and how it responds to existing tools requires live samples, scientists said.

EARLY CHALLENGES

Luxembourg was the first country to share samples of new coronavirus variants 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 got Omicron samples from South Africa, via the hub, less than three weeks after it was identified, enabling its researchers to start assessing the risks of the now-dominant strain. Portugal and Germany also received Omicron samples.

But Peru, El Salvador, Thailand and Egypt, all of which signalled in early 2022 that they wanted to send in variants found domestically, are still waiting, chiefly 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 providing safety details and usage agreements, she added. None of the four countries responded to requests for comment.

Both WHO and Hunger-Glaser stressed the project is a pilot, and they have already sped up 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 throws up potential problems if, for example, drugmakers reap profits from the discoveries of uncompensated researchers.

WHO plans to tackle this longer-term, and bring labs in each global region online, but it is not yet clear when or how this will be funded. The project's voluntary nature may also hold it back.

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

The project also comes amid heightened attention on labs worldwide after unproven claims in some Western countries that a leak from a high-security Wuhan lab may have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, an accusation China and most international scientists have dismissed.

Hunger-Glaser said the thinking around emerging threats must change post-COVID-19.

"If it is a real emergency, WHO should even get a plane" to transport the virus to scientists, she said. "If you can prevent the spreading, it's worthwhile."

© Thomson Reuters 2022.

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.


12 Comments

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Perhaps they could try and isolate the so called Corona virus which experts around the world have never been able to " Isolate " the Corona virus which has an official survival rate of more than 99 percent.

-1 ( +6 / -7 )

Perhaps they could try and isolate the so called Corona virus which experts around the world have never been able to " Isolate " the Corona virus which has an official survival rate of more than 99 percent.

The SARS-CoV-2 is routinely isolated in any minimally equipped virology lab, there is no special difficulty to do it because it replicates without problem even on usual cell cultures, much more easily with access to specialized cell lines like the Vero-hACE2-TMPRSS2.

The claim of lack of isolation is completely baseless, just people saying "no" to well characterized methods to evidence the isolation, from electronic microscopy to elevation of titers of viral RNA or antigen ELISA only on infected cells. Irrationally rejecting clear proof does not mean that proof is not available.

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

Yeah, in the name of stopping the next pandemic, they will once again start the next one.

Is it really super secure. What was the WIV, super insecure?

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

Yeah, in the name of stopping the next pandemic, they will once again start the next one.

No pandemic has ever started in a laboratory, imaginary facts are not valid arguments. In reality studies clearly indicate more and more that the pandemic had a natural origin, the same as every other pandemic in the history of mankind.

https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/978138

Virological research on the other hand had a huge role in allowing the vaccines against covid to be developed in a single year.

Real benefits that clearly help preventing countless deaths obviously are a much stronger argument than unproved things you like to believe happened.

-5 ( +4 / -9 )

No pandemic has ever started in a laboratory, imaginary facts are not valid arguments. In reality studies clearly indicate more and more that the pandemic had a natural origin, the same as every other pandemic in the history of mankind.

This is not proven.

Virological research on the other hand had a huge role in allowing the vaccines against covid to be developed in a single year.

Development on the vaccine had begin more than a decade before.

Real benefits that clearly help preventing countless deaths obviously are a much stronger argument than unproved things you like to believe happened.

This does not conclude anything that can be proven.

-2 ( +4 / -6 )

No pandemic has ever started in a laboratory, imaginary facts are not valid arguments. In reality studies clearly indicate more and more that the pandemic had a natural origin, the same as every other pandemic in the history of mankind.

This is not proven.

Therefore.....???

Scientific theories are never absolutely proven. They are based on evidence that supports the theory. They can be disproven with evidence that contradicts the theory. Virusrex used the term "clearly indicate". Can you show any evidence that indicates the opposite?

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

According to E-mails to Fauci from early 2020 that were released by FOIA:

Andersen reported to Fauci that “after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike and myself all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.” Eddie is Edward C. Holmes of the University of Sydney; Bob is Robert F. Garry of Tulane University; Mike is Michael Farzan at Scripps Research. In their unanimous view, the virus didn’t come from nature and may instead have escaped from a lab.

There are many signs that the virus was engineered. That is what these experts said in private among themselves. But these same experts would within days publicly call the lab-leak theories as "crackpot theories" and soon after publish an article declaring without proof “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

According to E-mails to Fauci from early 2020 that were released by FOIA:

Yes, incomplete evidence puts everything on the table, better evidence that came immediately let the scientists discard the theories that were clearly contradicted even by that very preliminary information, a trend that kept in the same direction, with new studies supporting more and more a natural origin by epidemiological, serological and molecular evidence until it became the only explanation that is not contradicted by the data.

There are many signs that the virus was engineered

No, there are none, everything that is being discovered about the virus supports much more the natural origin. Trying to misrepresent conjectures proposed when the information was incomplete as if they were conclusions that still can be held with the later evidence is just plain disinformation.

Crackpot theories are those where false information is presented or discarded theories already contradicted by evidence are misrepresented as if they were still valid.

The articles making an argument for the natural origin are there for you to disprove, what actual scientific arguments do you have to prove all of them are wrong? none? then they stand valid even if they contradict what you want to believe.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

The simplest way is to eradicate the Chinese laboratories weaponising these viruses.

Covid-19 was not a natural virus originating from animals. How could a longlasting and ever-changing global pandemic just start suddenly in the year 2019/ 2020?

Any reason why the Chinese government never allowed any WHO investigation? Just a coincidence that Covid-19 was mass-spread at the start of the 2020 Chinese New Year? Allowing millions to travel out of Wuhan.

Just read todays news and how they are behaving and then tell me they couldnt possibly have weaponised that virus.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Covid-19 was not a natural virus originating from animals. How could a longlasting and ever-changing global pandemic just start suddenly in the year 2019/ 2020?

Very easy, in the same way all other times it has happened. This is not something extraordinary that happened for the first time, it is something normal, unavoidable and expected that has happened repeatedly and conforms most of the infections that affect humans.

Making up self contradictory theories not supported by any evidence to explain something that happens naturally and repeatedly makes no sense whatsoever, it would be like trying to argue that every time it rains your neighbor makes puddles on the street on purpose so your house will get dirty when cars pass over them.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

virusrex, a well put together reply. So why did the Chinese government not permit the investigation by the World Health Organisation? An organisation that is already in the pocket of the Chinese government. Why block the investigation?

As you appear to be reasonably well informed and well versed, how come this virus (which has evolved and adapted numerous times since 2019) came now? Why hadn't it appeared before?

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

virusrex, a well put together reply. So why did the Chinese government not permit the investigation by the World Health Organisation? An organisation that is already in the pocket of the Chinese government. Why block the investigation?

Because of two very obvious reasons.

One, the WHO is not in the pocket of the Chinese government, it is obvious, if it were they would have "conducted" the investigation without any kind of resistance and reported everything was fine.

Two, because the Chinese government has enough to hide with their mismanagement of the beginning of the pandemic. The disease coming from nature does absolutely nothing to negate how the Chinese authorities tried to hide the initial outbreak and did the opposite of what any country should do in the event of a new threat to the global public health.

As you appear to be reasonably well informed and well versed, how come this virus (which has evolved and adapted numerous times since 2019) came now? Why hadn't it appeared before?

Why did SARS appeared 10 years ago? why did Zika only crossed to South America in 2015? why the Spanish flu caused a pandemic a 100 years ago instead of thousands of years ago?

That something can possibly happen do not mean it will happen immediately, new infections are continuously entering the human population, every year people get sick or even die from newly identified pathogens, that can even cause small outbreaks.

Some of those times the pathogen adapts well to be transmitted between humans, and if swift measures are not taken you get huge outbreaks or even pandemics. There is nothing unusual or strange about it, that is what pathogens do to survive.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

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