(Bloomberg) -- The number of high-containment labs around the world conducting potentially risky scientific research is surging, despite a lack of global agreement on how to make sure they're safe.

There are 69 so-called Biosafety Level 4, or BSL-4, facilities designed to study dangerous infectious pathogens in operation, under construction or planned worldwide, according to Global Biolabs, a tracking project run out of King’s College London and George Mason University in Virginia. About a decade ago, there were only 25.

These are the labs in which workers wear moonsuits and handle deadly viruses and organisms, monitored by highly sophisticated security systems.

Scientific safety has re-emerged as a high-stakes global issue in the weeks since the US Department of Energy suggested it had intelligence showing a lab leak was the most likely origin of the Covid-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, Congress held the first of what are likely to be a series of hearings on the matter. China has rejected the idea of a lab leak, and the scientific consensus remains that the pandemic began when the coronavirus leapt from animals to people.

Health scares — from the 2001 anthrax attacks to outbreaks of SARS, Ebola and Zika — have prompted numerous countries to pour enormous sums of money into building these types of labs. More facilities than ever are handling, and in some cases genetically enhancing, infectious pathogens. BSL-4 labs can now be found in more than 25 countries. They are frequently located in cities, where a loose virus or harmful organism could potentially spread quickly.

BSL-4 labs are expensive. In the US, it can cost as much as $1.25 billion to build one, and simply maintaining security in such a facility can run more than $2 million a year, experts say. But cost hasn’t been a deterrent. A dozen new BSL-4 facilities have been announced since the start of the pandemic, with most being constructed in Asia, from India to the Philippines. There’s also been a surge in the construction of labs that have fewer security measures, called BSL-3, where risky pathogens can also be handled. Data on the number of these labs globally doesn’t exist.

For decades, scientists from the US, China, Russia, Canada and Europe have swapped ideas for standardizing safety and security amid biolab building booms. At least 15 organizations have helped develop guidelines for the proper handling of viruses and bacteria, but the problem is none of the groups have the authority to make sure they’re implemented.

“Nobody wants lab accidents,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of George Mason’s biodefense graduate program and a co-leader of the Global Biolabs project. “Unfortunately this issue has become politicized and polarized. That’s because the people with the loudest voices have had the microphone.”

What global cooperation did exist unraveled during the pandemic, which has killed more than 6.8 million people worldwide. A group of scientists once met regularly to work toward improving international lab safety, but the meetings have stalled during the pandemic. “Things have kind of been on a hiatus,” said James Le Duc, who was formerly the head of one of the US’s largest biocontainment facilities and has attended the meetings.

Read more: Did Covid-19 Come From a Lab? The Last Scientist in the Wuhan Lab Speaks Out

The debate around the origins of Covid has made it hard for scientists to collaborate in ways once considered normal. Before the pandemic, the US National Institutes of Health funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a leading world center for coronavirus research. China is home to three BSL-4 labs and one more that’s planned.

The idea that Covid began with a lab leak was contested early on by the international scientific community, but it quickly found support from Republicans in the US. Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in an appearance on Fox News that the pandemic was most likely the result of a lab leak in China.

On Wednesday at the Congressional hearing, US lawmakers questioned the benefits of high-risk biological research. Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, who has said a lab leak is more likely than any other scenario, demanded a moratorium on research that enhances a pathogen’s ability to spread or make people sick, while a Johns Hopkins infectious disease expert called for bolstering US public health by constructing more BSL-4 facilities. 

Highly secure labs are meant to ensure safe conditions for risky studies. Research in which scientists make biological agents more potent, and possibly more harmful, can be used to understand future mutations of viruses and build better vaccines. The downside is these super-pathogens can escape the lab if they’re not handled with sufficient safety practices in place.

“High-containment labs are the foundation of our pandemic preparedness,” said Gerald Parker, director of the pandemic and biosecurity policy program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. He spent more than 30 years working in the federal government on global health and national security. “It’s typically being done for the right reasons, but it has to be done correctly.”

Poor Visibility

For all the noise about the China lab-leak theory, the US government has little visibility into high-risk research being done within its borders. 

Last year, Boston University researchers sought to study the omicron variant by combining parts of it with the original strain of Covid. Their findings caused an uproar: Some scientists accused the BU lab of inadvertently creating a more dangerous version of the coronavirus. 

US regulators said they weren’t aware of the study and asked for clarification about government grants involved, because that kind of funding would have allowed them to review BU’s work. However, while federal money was used to buy equipment, it didn’t fund the study itself. The work was done in a BSL-3 facility, which was subject to oversight from a university committee and the Boston Public Health Commission, the university said. In essence, the US government had no authority over the research, even if the work did potentially end up spawning a more infectious or more deadly form of Covid. For its part, BU said it was done safely.

“All we see is the stuff that gets published,” Koblentz said. “Is it the tip of the iceberg?”

The White House has made improving lab oversight a priority. And a group of federal advisers have finalized new guidance for monitoring studies where bacteria or viruses are made more lethal.

“Practicing scientists who would lose more autonomy over their research say this goes too far,” said Filippa Lentzos, director of King’s College London’s graduate program in science and international security, who runs the Global Biolabs project with George Mason’s Koblentz. “But I don’t think this goes far enough.”

The NIH says the US government’s oversight is comprehensive, pointing to regulation around federally funded research. But there are blind spots when it comes to privately funded research — the kind done by BU and by drug companies. In the 1970s, the NIH wanted to regulate research manipulating DNA pioneered by scientists who would go on to start the biotech company Genentech. “If the NIH guidelines are necessary to protect the public in federally funded research, it is clear they are necessary for privately funded research and application as well,” Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Jacob K. Javits wrote in a letter to then-President Gerald R. Ford in 1976. 

But industry groups were concerned with protecting propriety information and future patents, according to an NIH report. Efforts to create regulations that would have applied to universities and drug companies ultimately failed in Congress.

Global Shortcomings

International oversight is even worse. Reporting of the whereabouts of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs is spotty, and the designations carry little weight. There are no consequences at the global level for lab accidents, or processes in place to determine how they’re dealt with if they occur.

“The fact that we have to rely on academics to count how many there are in the world is telling, because there’s no requirement for countries to declare that they have these facilities,” said Andrew Weber, the former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs in the Obama administration.

In this vacuum, nations are self-policing. Only one country with a maximum-containment facility, Canada, has laws governing “dual-use research” that could be used for good or for harm, according to Global Biolabs. China, meanwhile, which isn’t a part of any high-profile biorisk management networks, enacted its own biosecurity law in April 2021, some of which focuses on responsible laboratory conduct.

Other countries are also moving ahead despite the lack of consensus on security. Among the nine countries that have announced plans to build labs in the wake of the Covid outbreak, five will build their very first BSL-4 facilities such as Brazil, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Singapore and Spain, according to Global Biolabs.

“They’ve become an item of national prestige” intended to demonstrate scientific prowess, Weber said.

Yet because of the Covid origins debate, many experts aren’t willing to engage on the subject of international high-containment lab oversight. Even the World Health Organization wouldn’t initially answer questions about efforts to bolster lab safety without seeing prompts ahead of time “so as to avoid miscommunication” due to the “obvious complexity and also sensitivity of the subject,” Kazunobu Kojima, a member of the WHO’s Epidemic and Pandemic Preparedness and Prevention branch, said by email.

Kojima later said that the WHO is continuing to work on global standards in coordination with all member states. A “feasible approach,” he said, could be to launch discussions on how nations can regulate their safety and security. That would shift the responsibility for enforcement back onto each country. There aren’t any plans to create an international body that could step in if something goes wrong.

Russia is taking advantage of the mounting geopolitical tensions and leveraging the language of biolabs as a threat. In August 2021, Vladimir Putin’s government announced that it would create 15 BSL-4 laboratories around the world by 2024 in an effort dubbed “National Sanitary Shield.” Russia vowed to meet its targets by expanding an existing network of labs, both inside and outside the country, in places like Guinea and Vietnam. The Global Biolabs project hasn’t included these in its count of planned labs because they don’t appear to be materializing. But Russia’s posturing alone shows just how charged the prospect of having these labs has become.

In the face of this global labs arms race, “it’s more important than ever that we amass a coalition of the majority of the countries in the world to fill these gaps in biosafety and security,” Weber said. The problem is, “international cooperation looks impossible today.”

(Adds new details on a Congressional hearing about the origins of the pandemic beginning in the fourth paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.