The Nosov commute: a spatial perspective on the rise of BSL-4 laboratories in cities

Thomas P. Van Boeckel, Michael J. Tildesley, Catherine Linard, José Halloy, Matt J. Keeling, Marius Gilbert

Research output: Working paper


Recent H5N1 influenza research has revived the debate on the storage and manipulation of potentially harmful pathogens. In the last two decades, new high biosafety (BSL-4) laboratories entered into operation, raising strong concerns from the public. The probability of an accidental release of a pathogen from a BSL-4 laboratory is extremely low, but the corresponding risk -- defined as the probability of occurrence multiplied by its impact -- could be significant depending on the pathogen specificities and the population potentially affected. A list of BSL-4 laboratories throughout the world, with their location and date of first activity, was established from publicly available sources. This database was used to estimate the total population living within a daily commuting distance of BSL-4 laboratories, and to quantify how this figure changed over time. We show that from 1990 to present, the population living within the commuting belt of BSL-4 laboratories increased by a factor of 4 to reach up to 1.8% of the world population, owing to an increase in the number of facilities and their installation in cities. Europe is currently hosting the largest population living in the direct vicinity of BSL-4 laboratories, while the recent building of new facilities in Asia suggests that an important increase of the population living close to BSL-4 laboratories will be observed in the next decades. We discuss the potential implications in term of global risk, and call for better pathogen-specific quantitative assessment of the risk of outbreaks resulting from the accidental release of potentially pandemic pathogens
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • q-bio.PE


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