Beautiful Virgin Islands

Monday, Mar 04, 2024

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

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

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."

Newsletter

Related Articles

Beautiful Virgin Islands
0:00
0:00
Close
Unelected PM of the UK holds an emergency meeting because a candidate got voted in… which he says is a threat to democracy…
I have a dream, MLK inspiring speech
Rob Schneider explains California reparations legislation.
Aretha Franklin, Marvis Staples - Oh Happy Day
Who knew badminton could get so intense?
BVI Freedom Song
Farmers break through police barriers in Brussels.
Billy Preston - You Can't Beat God Giving (Live)
London's Iconic British Telecom Tower Sold To Become Hotel
VIRGIN ISLANDS REGGAE CARIBBEAN RIDDIMZ
Ukraine Arrests Father-Son Duo In Lockbit Cybercrime Bust
Oh Happy Day Edwin Hawkins - Anthony Brown w FBCG Combined Choir
US Offers $15 Million For Info On Leaders Of Cybercrime Group Lockbit
'Stand by Me' performed by Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir
Russia Claims UK Cultural Agency Spied for Ukraine
National Anthem of the British Virgin Islands - Oh, Beautiful Virgin
Apple warns against drying iPhones with rice
Hello Dolly
Alexei Navalny: UK sanctions Russian prison chiefs after activist's death
for KING & COUNTRY - Amen (Reborn) [feat. Lecrae & The WRLDFMS Tony Wi
German economy is in 'troubled waters' - ministry
Bob Marley - Get Up Stand Up
In a recent High Court hearing, the U.S. argued that Julian Assange endangered lives by releasing classified information.
Yes He Can
New video
What A Friend We Have In Jesus
Tucker Carlson says Boris Johnson wants "a million dollars, in Bitcoin or cash, from Tucker Carlson to talk about Ukraine.
Unforgettable
Russia is rebuilding capacity to destabilize European countries, new UK report warns
Touch The Hem Of His Garment
EU Commission wants anti-drone defenses at Brussels HQ
The Lord's Prayer
Von der Leyen’s 2nd-term pitch: More military might, less climate talk
THE GOD MOVEMENT...BEAUTIFUL BVI
Global Law Enforcement Dismantles Lockbit Ransomware Operation
Siyahamba
Prince William Urges End to Gaza Conflict
Ray Charles And The Voices Of Jubilaton, Oh, Happy Day
UK court to hear Assange's final appeal against extradition to the US, where he faces charges related to his journalistic work—the publication of a classified video in 2010 that exposed US war crimes against humanity.
Ramblin' Rose
About 50-60% kids either chose to be YouTuber or influencer
Protoje - Who Knows ft. Chronixx
A viral video of Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce lying on a Canberra footpath is celebrated by his media mates.
Pressure - Virgin Islands Nice
European Countries React to Navalny's Death by Summoning Russian Diplomats
Phil Wickham - House Of The Lord
Israel has gone ‘beyond self-defence’ in Gaza, says Labour’s Streeting
My God Is Real (Yes, God Is Real)
English farmers to be offered ‘largest ever’ grant scheme amid food security concerns
The Lion King Circle of Life by LEBO M. — LIVE at the HAVASI Symphonic
Cameron government knew Post Office ditched Horizon IT investigation
Louis Armstrong - When The Saints Go Marching In
EU Calls for Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza Conflict
Kanye West Sunday Service - hallelujah, salvation, and glory
EU Vows To Hold Putin "Accountable" After Meeting Alexei Navalny's Wife
Jonathan Nelson - I Believe (Island Medley
EU Launches Probe Into TikTok Over Child Protection Under Digital Content Law
From The Virgin Islands Sqad Up
The EU Initiates Naval Mission to Defend Red Sea Trade Routes
Common, John Legend - Glory
EU and UK Announce Joint Effort on Migration
Anthony Evans vs. Jesse Campbell - If I Ain't Got You
Brazil's Lula Likens Gaza Operation to Holocaust, Israel Says "Red Line" Crossed
I have a dream, MLK inspiring speech
Ministers Confirm Proposal to Prohibit Mobile Phone Usage in English Schools
Aretha Franklin, Marvis Staples - Oh Happy Day
Microsoft-backed OpenAI valued at $80bn after company completes deal
BVI Freedom Song
‘Alexei would want to tell Russia not to give up fighting’
Billy Preston - You Can't Beat God Giving (Live)
Rwandan Footballer's Dismissal Sparks Concerns Over UK Asylum Plan
VIRGIN ISLANDS REGGAE CARIBBEAN RIDDIMZ
Whisky Challenges China's Baijiu Market During New Year Celebrations
Oh Happy Day Edwin Hawkins - Anthony Brown w FBCG Combined Choir
Avdiivka - Symbol Of Ukrainian Resistance Now In Control Of Russian Troops
'Stand by Me' performed by Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir
Putin Critic Alexei Navalny's "Killers" Refusing To Hand Over Body, Say Allies
National Anthem of the British Virgin Islands - Oh, Beautiful Virgin
"Historic Step": Zelensky Signs Security Pact With Germany
Hello Dolly
"Historic Step": Zelensky Signs Security Pact With Germany
for KING & COUNTRY - Amen (Reborn) [feat. Lecrae & The WRLDFMS Tony Wi
20 Tech Giants Sign Effort To Fight AI Election Interference Across Globe
Bob Marley - Get Up Stand Up
Joe Biden Accuses Putin of Causing Navalny's Death
Yes He Can
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has died at the Arctic prison colony
What A Friend We Have In Jesus
Tucker Carlson grocery shopping in Russia. This is so interesting.
Unforgettable
Julian Assange's Wife Warns of His Death if Extradited to US
Touch The Hem Of His Garment
‘A lot higher than we expected’: Russian arms production worries Europe’s war planners
The Lord's Prayer
Greece Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage and Adoption Rights
THE GOD MOVEMENT...BEAUTIFUL BVI
Hungarian Foreign Minister: Europeans will lose Europe, the Union's policy must change drastically
Siyahamba
In Britain Homeowners are receiving CPO’s (Compulsory Purchase Orders) so their homes can be redistributed to migrants
Ray Charles And The Voices Of Jubilaton, Oh, Happy Day
×