Spiez Lab’s exterior provides no hint of the high-stakes work inside
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.
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“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 media 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.