In the super-secure Swiss laboratory, they try to stop the next pandemic

In the super-secure Swiss laboratory, they try to stop the next pandemic

SPIEZ, Switzerland, July 31 (Portal) – The setting is straight out of a spy thriller: crystal clear waters below, snow-capped Swiss Alps above and in between a super-secure facility researching the world’s deadliest pathogens.

The Spiez Laboratory, known for its detective work on chemical, biological and nuclear threats since World War II, was commissioned 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 trigger the next pandemic.

WHO’s BioHub program arose in part out of frustration with the hurdles researchers have faced in obtaining samples of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, first discovered in China, to understand its dangers and develop tools to combat it .

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

This includes securing guarantees needed for accepting samples of coronavirus variants from multiple countries, the first phase of the project. Some of the largest countries in the world may not cooperate. And there is still no mechanism in place to share samples for vaccine, treatment or test development without violating intellectual property protections.

“If we have another pandemic like the coronavirus, the goal would be for it to stay where it started,” Isabel Hunger-Glaser, head of the BioHub project in Spiez, told Portal in a rare media interview at the lab. Therefore, samples need to be brought to the center so it can help scientists around the world assess the risk.

“We found it was a lot harder” than we thought it would be, she said.

SAFETY IN THE MOUNTAINS

From the outside, the Spiez Laboratory gives no indication of the demanding work inside. Its angular architecture is reminiscent of European university buildings from the 1970s. Sometimes cows graze on the grassy courtyard.

But the responsible biosafety officer keeps his blinds closed. Alarms go off if his door is open for more than a few seconds. He oversees multiple screens showing security camera views of the labs with the highest Biosafety Level (BSL) precautions.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, is being studied in BSL-3 laboratories, the second highest level of security. Samples of the virus used in the BioHub are kept in locked freezers, Hunger-Glaser said. A decreasing air pressure system means that if a breach occurs, clean air would flow to the safest areas instead of contaminated air flowing out.

Scientists working with the coronavirus and other pathogens wear protective suits, some with their own air supply. You work with samples in a hermetically sealed containment unit. Waste leaving the lab is superheated to up to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,830 F) to kill attached pathogens.

To date, there has never been an accidental leak in Spiez, according to the team. That reputation is a key reason why they were selected as WHO’s first BioHub, Hunger-Glaser said.

The proximity to the WHO headquarters in Geneva, two hours away, also helped. The WHO and the Swiss government are funding the annual budget of 600,000 Swiss francs ($626,000) for the 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 was also controversial, for example when researchers in wealthy countries received recognition for the work of less well-connected scientists in developing countries.

“Often you just exchanged material with your buddies,” says Hunger-Glaser.

Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus MC Virosciences department in the Netherlands, said it took her lab a month to detect SARS-CoV-2 after it surfaced in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019.

Chinese researchers quickly posted a copy of the genetic sequence online, which helped researchers start early work. But understanding how a new virus is transmitted 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 the UK.

Luxembourg sent in alpha, beta, gamma and delta variants, while the latter two countries shared Omicron, the WHO said.

Luxemburg received Omicron samples from South Africa via the hub less than three weeks after its identification, allowing its researchers to begin risk assessment of the now dominant strain. Portugal and Germany also received samples from Omicron.

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

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

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

Another challenge is exchanging samples used in research that could lead to commercial gains, such as B. in the development of vaccines. BioHub samples are shared for free to allow wide access. However, this raises potential problems if, for example, drug manufacturers benefit from the discoveries of unpaid researchers.

The WHO plans to address this in the longer term and bring labs online in every global region, but it is not yet clear when or how this will be funded. The voluntariness of the project can also hold it back.

“Some countries will never ship virus, or it can be extremely difficult – China, Indonesia, Brazil,” Koopmans said, referring to her stance on recent outbreaks. None of the three responded to requests for comment.

The project also comes amid heightened attention for labs worldwide following unsubstantiated claims in some Western countries that a leak from a high-security lab in Wuhan may have sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, an accusation that has spooked China and most international scientists have rejected.

Hunger-Glaser said thinking about emerging threats needs to change after 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 prevent the spread, it’s worth it.”

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Reporting by Jennifer Rigby; Edited by Michele Gershberg and Nick Macfie

Our standards: The Thomson Portal Trust Principles.