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European biosafety labs set to grow

Bioterrorism and emerging diseases spur building boom, although some question the need for more facilities.

Containing risk: a project to link up all of Europe's highest-security labs is being planned. Credit: F. MAY/UPPA/PHOTOSHOT

A rash of new maximum-security biosafety-level-4 (BSL-4) labs are being built in the European Union (EU), and even more are planned, but some scientists are arguing that the bloc already has more facilities than it needs.

The issue is currently being tackled by a three-year study, costing €5 million (US$7.5 million), which looks set to determine the future of the European BSL-4 landscape. The study, funded by the European Commission, is the initial phase of a project called 'European research infrastructure on highly pathogenic agents' (ERINHA), which will bring all EU BSL-4 labs into a single network.

The project involves the main laboratories and national governments, and aims to work out a coherent scientific and policy case for future BSL-4 needs, thereby helping to avoid duplication, says Hervé Raoul, director of the Jean Meriéux-Inserm BSL-4 lab in Lyon, France, and coordinator of ERINHA. It would also introduce pan-European guidelines on best safety and security practices, and enable researchers from any member state to use facilities anywhere in the EU.

ERINHA is part of a broader EU initiative, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), that was set up to improve the coordination of Europe's large research infrastructures (see Nature 450, 586; 2007). It foresees costs of some €174 million for construction and upgrading of BSL-4 labs, and €24 million annually for operating expenses, with most funding coming from member states.

The EU currently has six operational BSL-4 labs in four countries — Britain, Germany, Sweden and France — with at least eight new facilities being built, or under discussion, in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria (see map), although the Italian facility will replace the existing one there. That expansion mirrors a similar boom in the United States, where new construction will increase the number of BSL-4 labs from 7 to 13 (see Nature 461, 577; 2009).


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Scientists contacted by Nature agree that there are benefits from greater collaboration between centres and from refurbishing older labs. Bringing the BSL-4 labs together in a network should also help to improve the response to health threats at a pan-European level, says Carla Nisii, a researcher at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Rome. The project also aims to build laboratories in Eastern Europe.

But some are sceptical about the need for more European facilities. "The existing facilities are already more than sufficient," says one high-security-lab researcher who requested anonymity. "I'm not so sure more infrastructure is necessary," agrees Stephan Günther, head of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, which has a decades-old BSL-4 lab and is preparing to open the doors of a new one. Günther's lab specializes in research on exotic and dangerous viruses, as do most of the older BSL-4 labs in Europe.

Günther suggests that the current boom in BSL-4 labs has been largely prompted by heightened concerns over bioterrorism following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. "Before 11 September there was no interest in all these diseases; it was only tropical-health researchers who were interested in them," he says.

"Bioterrorism is taken into account, of course," says Raoul. But the primary motivation is to help the EU prepare for emerging diseases such as SARS. BSL-4 labs are a vital part of the standard response to an outbreak, responsible for isolating and characterizing the pathogen, developing diagnostic techniques and sometimes working on potential therapies. "We are seeing roughly one new emerging or re-emerging pathogen per year, while pathogens are also changing their geographical ranges, and travel is resulting in more imported cases of exotic diseases," says Philip Luton, a scientist who is now head of business development and spokesman at the UK Health Protection Agency's Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response at Porton Down.

Although Günther is sceptical about the need for more labs, he thinks that the ERINHA project would certainly help existing facilities to upgrade. Whereas national governments may fund the construction costs of BSL-4 labs, they are often unwilling to cover the running costs of such labs in the long term, he says, a problem that a pan-European network could help to address. The running costs of a BSL-4 lab are much higher than those of a typical virology lab, says Raoul. Maintenance of his own Lyon lab runs to €1.5 million annually, on top of €1 million in salaries for the core support staff who assist visiting researchers.

The best way to ensure sustained operational funding is to make a well-argued case at the European level and to get buy-in from national decision-makers, argues Raoul. "We are making it clear that to construct a BSL-4 lab without taking into account its subsequent running costs is suicidal.

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For more, see Editorial, page 137 , and News Feature, page 154 .

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Nature's biosecurity policy

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ESFRI roadmap

US GAO report on high-containment labs (pdf)

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Butler, D. European biosafety labs set to grow. Nature 462, 146–147 (2009).

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