Coronavirus research requires high-containment labs. Journalist Elisabeth Eaves talks with Scientific American contributing editor W. Wayt Gibbs about her article “The Risks of Building Too Many Bio Labs,” a joint project of the New Yorker and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
SM: This is Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on April 3, 2020. I’m Steve Mirsky. The coronavirus now leaping across the globe made its first jump from wild animals—probably bats—to people. But now that virus is being cultivated in specially equipped biohazard labs, the same kind that are used to store and study other dangerous microbes, like anthrax and Ebola.
In an article published recently by the New Yorker and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Elisabeth Eaves explores the proliferation of these high-containment labs, which now number in the hundreds in the U.S. She reports that some experts are concerned that the sheer number of such facilities are raising the likelihood of a catastrophic breach. Her story takes us to one federal lab on an island in Long Island Sound that works with highly contagious livestock diseases. In a highly controversial decision, she reports, that lab is now being relocated to a Kansas town in the heart of America’s cattle country.
Scientific American contributing editor W. Wayt Gibbs spoke with Eaves what she learned in the two years she spent reporting the story, which is titled “The Risks of Building Too Many Bio Labs.”
EE: “I’m Elisabeth Eaves. I’m an author and journalist based in Seattle, and I’m a contributing editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.”
WWG: This reporting was a joint project between the New Yorker and the Bulletin, which we should explain is a non-profit media organization that was founded at the close of World War II by Albert Einstein and scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. Having created nuclear weapons, they felt they needed to draw attention to the risks of a nuclear arms race and other man-made threats to humanity. Those threats include biological weapons and accidental releases of dangerous pathogens that are being studied for research in high-containment labs, also called biosafety level 3 or level 4 labs.
Eaves opens her story by describing a visit she took to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Long Island Sound. It’s a very large, very old facility, operated by the Department of Homeland Security.
EE: “Look it’s beautiful. It’s an island mostly covered with vegetation, very low to the water…. It's really a birders paradise there—herons and owls and all kinds of things…. There’s a lighthouse that dates from I think the 1800s…. And then at one end, there's this office building which is attached to the BSL-3 lab. So that stands for biosafety level three, which is a high-containment lab.”
WWG: BSL-3 labs are the ones that handle lethal microbes such as anthrax, plague virus—and now SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Plum Island, a research team of about 400 people studies diseases that are dangerous to livestock, including foot-and-mouth-disease, which is one of the most highly infectious animal diseases known.
EE: “It’s a virus that can affect any cloven-foot animal. So that's cattle and pigs, but could also be bison, sheep, goats… It can travel on a pant leg or on the air, on a muddy tire.
“The fatality rate isn’t huge, but it's extremely contagious…. In 2001, Britain had a really large foot-and-mouth outbreak. And it was devastating to their agricultural industry. It was devastating to tourism, even, …because they had no-travel zones. So it’s kind of like now, when you have to make everybody stop moving around. The economic losses are huge.”
WWG: And then, just six years later, foot-and-mouth broke out again in England.
EE: “They did trace the source of that one. And it turned out it was a lab breach. There is a very prestigious infectious disease research institute called the Pirbright Institute. Well, it turns out that there were kind of two buildings on this campus, and they had a faulty drain pipe. And there was some squabbling over which building’s responsibility it was to fix this drain pipe. Well, long story short, some foot-and-mouth got out through this faulty drain pipe and infected cattle nearby.
WWG: To protect against such disastrous accidents, Congress passed a law requiring that any research involving live virus that can cause foot-and-mouth disease must be done on coastal islands, such as Plum Island—unless the Secretary of Agriculture makes a compelling case to bring it onto the mainland.
Nevertheless, Eaves reports, around 2007 the Department of Homeland Security decided that it needed to upgrade the Plum Island lab to biosafety level 4—the highest level, where they could work with highly lethal and contagious human pathogens like Ebola and Nipah virus, as well as avian flu, swine fever, and foot-and-mouth virus. But New York’s Congressional representatives, including then-Senator Hillary Clinton, strongly opposed upgrading Plum Island. So DHS began searching for a site to relocate the lab and turn it into a National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.
EE: “So they started looking around. I don't think any islands were actually considered. They wanted a place with some kind of academic community or academic resources, you know, a university perhaps, or maybe an existing research facility…. An official factor in their search was community acceptance. So they needed and wanted to find a place where essentially the people wouldn't complain or would accept and be happy to have this lab there.”
WWG: That turned out to be difficult. Eaves describes how opposition groups formed to agitate against a new biohazard lab at one candidate site after another: in California, in Oregon, in Wisconsin.
EE: “They eventually whittled it down to six options. And of those options. Manhattan, Kansas, was by far the smallest urban area. So Manhattan, Kansas is a city of just about 55,000 people… a really pretty college town in the middle of wheat fields.”
WWG: And not just wheat fields.
EE: “So, yeah, this is the middle of cattle country.”
EE: “I think Texas is actually the largest cattle producing state in the country. Kansas, though is in the top 10. All its immediate neighbors—you know, Colorado, Nebraska—they’re all in the top 10. I think Kansas is third largest…. There’s cattle farming everywhere.”
WWG: Eaves describes how Kansas Senator Pat Roberts pushed to bring the biodefense lab to that state, at one point telling the state legislature that it would be one of the greatest economic development initiatives in state history. But while local politicians saw stable jobs and lucrative federal contracts, some scientists scratched their heads at the wisdom of locating stores of extremely dangerous and contagious microbes so close to livestock—and to people.
EE: “So it’s right in town… adjacent to the Kansas State University campus. Walking distance to student housing, it's immediately next to a low-income housing development that is very close to a retirement home. Maybe half a mile from the Kansas State football stadium…. So it’s like right there in the middle of things.”
WWG: Eaves spoke to two developmental biologists at Kansas State University who thought the plan was inviting disaster.
EE: “Abigail Conrad said it defies reason. Her husband Gary, called it beyond ludicrous, almost criminal and genuinely stupid.”
WWG: But Homeland Security assured Congress that the risk of any of those infectious agents escaping was acceptably low.
EE: “The National Academies of sciences critiqued their plan, and found that there was there was a 70% chance of a foot-and-mouth outbreak due to a lab breach over a 50-year lifespan of the lab. So that's obviously enormously high and frightening. And one reason was because the homeland security plan had not taken into account the potential effects of tornadoes, which obviously, there are a lot of tornadoes in Kansas. That was in 2010.
“So the DHS… improved their design, and resubmitted a design. The National … Academy of Sciences had a chance to weigh in again a couple of years later, and this time DHS … said ‘no, no, no. The risk of …a foot-and-mouth outbreak resulting from a lab reach here is almost zero.’ …They said it’s one 10th of 1%, I think.
“Well, the National Academy of Sciences committee said ‘That’s ridiculous. They said something like it’s not consistent with modern industrial systems. But their comments weren’t binding, and so construction went ahead.”
WWG: Construction has been underway since 2013, and DHS says the $1.25 billion facility is on track for completion next year.
EE: “It'll be a very strong, well-engineered building. Tornadoes are probably not the worst thing you need to worry about there. The thing that most experts in this field raise as a potential risk is really the human factor. … In no lab can you really completely eliminate the human-error factor. … That's why you always end up with some risk.”
EE: “Well, there just have been a lot of lab breaches over the years. The Soviet Union had a big bioweapons research program, and they had an incident in the 70s at their Sverdlovsk Lab…, where they accidentally released a puff of anthrax spores into the sky. Three hundred and some people were killed, I believe, but if the wind had been blowing the other direction, it could have been tens of thousands or maybe more people killed.”
WWG: We heard already about the leak of foot-and-mouth virus from the lab in England. You may remember about the anthrax-laced letters sent to members of Congress shortly after 9/11.
EE: “In 2008, the FBI concluded their investigation and they found that the anthrax letters had come from Bruce Ivins who was a mentally unstable researcher at U.S. AMRIID at Fort Detrick in Maryland. So he was inside the US biosecurity complex.”
EE: “There have been some really disturbing ones more recently. The CDC… discovered that a number of workers had been exposed to live anthrax, because when scientists move anthrax around, they're supposed to deactivate it, which they do through radiation. And sometimes, I guess they don't … make sure that that it was deactivated, so they exposed a bunch of workers.
“In 2015, the army revealed that its Dugway Proving Ground had mailed hundreds of live anthrax samples to other labs in the United States and in other countries. That's just a handful of better-known incidents.”
WWG: Humans beings make mistakes. It’s what we do. And every new high-containment lab is an opportunity for a mistake to let a dangerous pathogen loose inside the country.
EE: “Every time you build one you bring in a little more risk. So the question is: how many of these labs should there be? And some people think we have too many.”
EE: “There is no one body that has oversight of all high-containment labs, by which I mean BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs in the U.S. There's no single entity, there's no planning. The Government Accountability Office has done a number of reports on this over the years and …they don't even know exactly how many there are. We think there's at least 276 high-containment labs—that was as of a count in 2017. But that's probably not the full number.”
WWG: The COVID-19 pandemic we’re facing now demonstrates, on the one hand, the need to have secure labs that can study dangerous pathogens like the SARS-CoV-2 virus to understand everything we need to know to stop its spread and save as many lives as possible. But the pandemic also illustrates, on the other hand, the incredible amount of havoc a fast-spreading infectious agent can wreak on society.
EE: “I think it's going to change a lot of thinking and that includes people being aware of labs doing high-containment research in their communities.”
EE: “We certainly need some high-containment labs. The question is: how many do we need? And I think what the last 20 years shows us is the way to react to a biosecurity crisis isn’t just to throw money without planning at a problem. It’s to plan very carefully and deliberately what you want to do, and where you want to do it, and how you're going to fund it consistently. So it’s not that we shouldn't have these labs at all. … But how we've managed them in the past is risky. And it doesn’t have to be so risky…. A more focused, better-planned system with some kind of central authority with oversight would make us all safer and healthier, I think, in the long run.”
WWG: That’s Elisabeth Eaves. You can find her article “The Risks of Building Too Many Bio Labs” at TheBulletin.org and at NewYorker.com.
WWG: For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I’m Wayt Gibbs.