In a biocontainment laboratory, there’s always a risk of something going wrong, Dr. James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory said.
People can unintentionally be stuck with a needle or bitten by an infected animal, causing a breach of even the most secure lab protocols.
But as a theory about a Chinese lab being the original source of the global coronavirus pandemic circulates at the highest level of the U.S. government, LeDuc was cautious about placing blame on the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“I certainly wouldn’t say that there isn’t a possibility for something to get released out of our laboratory or any other lab around the world,” LeDuc said. “I can say there are redundant safety mechanisms in place both here, and certainly in Wuhan, that guard against that.
“But sometimes accidents happen,” he said
LeDuc is a former U.S. Centers for Disease Control official who once led the office responsible for preventing deaths from viral disease.
LeDuc wasn’t just speculating about the safety of the Wuhan lab. The Galveston National Lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch has a years-long relationship with the facility and its researchers.
LeDuc, who visited the Wuhan lab while it was under construction in 2017, said it is comparable in quality and safety to biosafety labs in the United State and Europe.
Questions about the role of the Wuhan lab have increased in recent days because of statements by President Donald Trump and other political leaders. A widely read column in The Washington Post also raised new questions about where the virus originated.
Wuhan, a city in eastern China, was the site of the first major outbreak of the coronavirus. Speculation about the lab as the source of the outbreak has been fueled by multiple factors, including its location and by the efforts of the Chinese government to tamp down on reporting about the virus outbreak.
Recent news about the Wuhan lab has included mentions of the Galveston National Laboratory and the medical branch’s connection to the Chinese lab.
WHAT IS THE CONNECTION?
The Galveston lab has worked with China since 2013, when construction began on the Wuhan laboratory. Both the Galveston and Wuhan research facilities operate Biosafety Level 4 laboratories, which are designed to safely contain the most lethal and infectious pathogens for research, LeDuc said.
While the Wuhan lab was under construction, the National Lab provided “short-term training experiences” to the staff, LeDuc said. The Galveston lab also hosted two Chinese post-doctoral students, who were trained to work safely in BSL-4 laboratories and who returned to China to work in the Wuhan lab, LeDuc said.
Those students started a biosafety and biocontainment training program for the Wuhan lab, LeDuc said.
The National Laboratory’s role in training researchers from China isn’t unusual. Between 2008 and 2016, the National Lab’s National Biocontainment Training Center was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to teach researchers from about 70 countries on laboratory safety techniques.
Defense department funding for the training center ended in 2016. Since then, the Galveston National Laboratory hasn’t offered training to international researchers, LeDuc said.
QUESTIONS ABOUT TRAINING
Claims about a lack of training have been at the center of the latest news about the Wuhan lab’s connection to the coronavirus outbreak.
On April 14, Washington Post opinion columnist Josh Rogin reported on U.S. State Department cables, written in 2018, that warned about safety management weaknesses at the Wuhan lab.
Rogin interviewed an unnamed U.S. official who called the cables a “warning shot” meant to bring more attention and support to the lab. The cables said the Wuhan lab had a shortage of trained technicians and researchers. Despite the cables, no extra U.S. assistance was given to the lab, Rogin said.
In recent months, the cables have circulated among Trump administration officials as possible evidence the coronavirus was released in China as the result of a lab accident, Rogin said. On the same day as Rogin’s column, Yahoo News published its own report about the Trump administration’s speculation about the Wuhan Lab that emphasized there was no hard evidence for the connection.
The intelligence community “has not come down on any one theory,” about the origins of the virus, the Yahoo story said.
LeDuc didn’t know anything about the State Department cables, he said. He didn’t think the comments about training were a direct reference to the Galveston National Laboratory or its programs, he said.
Rogin’s report focuses on the concerns about Wuhan’s BSL-4 lab. The Yahoo article and the CDC’s own website note that coronavirus samples can be handled safely in laboratories with lower safety levels.
The Galveston National Laboratory received a sample of the coronavirus for research in February. Since then, researchers have worked with the virus in the medical branch’s BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratories, officials confirmed Tuesday.
After the Washington Post column was published, some conservative news organizations, including Fox News, reported about “increased confidence,” again from unnamed U.S. officials about the Wuhan lab being the origin of the virus. On Saturday, Trump said China should face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible” for releasing the virus.
The director of the Wuhan lab on Tuesday denied any connection between the lab and the outbreak. Also on Tuesday, the World Health Organization said evidence shows the virus likely originated in animals and that it was not manipulated or constructed in a laboratory.
LeDuc had similar sentiments about the origins of the coronavirus.
“There is convincing evidence that the new virus was not the result of intentional genetic engineering and that it almost certainly originated from nature, given its high similarity to other known bat-associated coronaviruses,” LeDuc said.