Taiwan’s defense ministry has outlined a five-year initiative to beef up the island’s biological warfare defense as well as a plan to upgrade a biosafety laboratory.

The biosafety level-4 lab in New Taipei City was designed according to the World Health Organization-approved protocols for the isolation of biological agents and is now under the oversight of the National Defense University.

Only labs rated level-4, the highest standard in the WHO hierarchy, are qualified to handle highly contagious or unidentified pathogens.

Biosafety level 4 is the highest level of biosafety precautions and is appropriate for work with agents that could easily be aerosol-transmitted within the lab and cause severe or fatal diseases in humans for which there are no available vaccines or treatments.

Before China opened its Institute of Virology in the cities of Wuhan and Harbin as the largest level-4 lab in Asia, Taiwan and Japan were the only Asian nations that had level-4 labs as crucial assets for epidemiology research and to counter biological weapons.

The island’s defense ministry said staying ahead in biological research was a top priority to enhance epidemiology research and biological warfare defense research, adding that upgrading the lab would be a precautionary response to biological threats from China, terrorism or naturally occurring diseases.

China has unveiled a plan to build between five and seven level-4 labs across the nation by the mid-2020s.

The Wuhan lab cost 300 million yuan (US$44 million), and to allay safety concerns, it was built far above the flood plain and with the capacity to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake.

It focuses on the control of emerging diseases, stores purified viruses and acts as a WHO ‘reference laboratory’ linked to similar labs around the world. The next two are expected to be in Beijing and Kunming, the latter focused on using monkey models to study disease.