Surely There's a Better Way

Lack of attention to basics is hampering the lessons we could learn from the origins discussion

A remarkable interview with the American virologist Ralph Baric came out in MIT Technology Review right after my article in the New York Times was published. Ralph Baric is one of the world’s top bat coronavirus experts—maybe the top expert. He is a co-author of the 2015 study with  Chinese virologist Zhengli Shi that’s often cited in the debate over the origins of the coronavirus. The study created a chimeric virus to show that a bat coronavirus spike protein could infect human airway cells directly, without needing to pass through an intermediary animal or further mutations. In some ways, Baric both knows more than almost anyone about this topic and also a lot at risk by this ongoing discussion of laboratory and research risks—because of the paper with Dr. Shi and others, he’s been personally targeted.

In the interview, Dr. Baric talks about the two bat coronaviruses that we know can infect human cells and, notes that have been cultured at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Labs have different levels of safety, and they are classified accordingly. BSL-2 designates a much lower level of mandatory safety requirements than BSL-3, where ventilation controls are required, among many other protections, and which is expensive and cumbersome. My article discussed the issue of working with bat coronaviruses that can infect humans at BSL-2 level labs which was done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Indeed, studying or experimenting with such viruses is one of the basic risks in lab work.

This is from the Tech Review article:  

There is no law against using tighter lab security, however, and according to Baric, these viruses deserve it. “I would never argue that WIV1 or SHC014 should be studied at BSL-2, because they can grow in primary human cells,” he says. “There’s some risk associated with those viruses. We have no idea whether they could actually cause severe disease in a human, but you want to err on the side of caution ... If you study a hundred different bat viruses, your luck may run out.”

Since the pandemic began, Baric has not said much about the possible origins of the virus or about his Chinese counterparts. On several occasions, however, he has quietly pointed to safety concerns at the WIV. In May 2020, when few scientists were willing to consider a lab leak in public, he published a paper acknowledging that “speculation about accidental laboratory escape will likely persist, given the large collections of bat virome samples stored in labs in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the facility’s proximity to the early outbreak, and the operating procedures at the facility.” He flagged Daszak and Shi’s BSL-2 paper, in case anyone didn’t understand what he was saying.

Here’s another part:

The genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 does not resemble that of any virus the WIV was known to be culturing in its lab, such as WIV1, and Baric says he still believes a natural spillover is the most likely cause. But he also knows the intricate risks of the work well enough to see a possible path to trouble. That is why, in May of this year, he joined 17 other scientists in a letter in the journal Science calling for a thorough investigation of his onetime collaborator’s lab and its practices. He wants to know what barriers were in place to keep a pathogen from slipping out into Wuhan’s population of 13 million, and possibly to the world.

“Let’s face it: there are going to be unknown viruses in guano, or oral swabs, which are oftentimes pooled. And if you’re attempting to culture a virus, you’re going to have novel strains being dropped onto culture cells,” Baric says. “Some will grow. You could get recombinants that are unique. And if that was being done at BSL-2, then there are questions you want to ask.”

I’ve commented on the “likelihood” calculations in before. I don’t make them in the Times article. And as I noted in my previous newsletter, I find Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki’s formulation to be correct: With so little evidence, probability calculations remain essentially undefined, or a toss-up in that one cannot really sensibly discriminate between them simply because of lack of data.

But in some sense, it doesn’t matter.An investigation into the Wuhan labs’ practices (if China allows one) must look at all possibilities. Even if China prohibits an investigation, we should consider protecting ourselves in the future against all such possible risks—and consider this to be a bigger issue than labs in China alone.

However, I want to focus on unpacking what Baric is saying because it is quite remarkable and also straightforward. He notes that if one is sampling a lot of bat guano or oral swabs, and trying to culture them, as is done as part of the research by WIV, it is possible to culture viruses one did not even know were there, and even face the risk they would recombine—creating a new virus that could be more dangerous to humans than either precursor. The more you do this, and the more aggressively and with fewer safety precautions (which are cumbersome and slow down the research, and then the publications), the more one is tempting fate. 

And with pandemic-pathogens, one unlucky chain of incidents is all it takes to potentially unleash a global catastrophe. 

Plus, as he notes, we have evidence that some actually dangerous pathogens that could infect humans were being studied in BSL-2 conditions. He notes that this is allowed, technically speaking—but shouldn’t be done. (Countries can determine what’s allowed at what level themselves; but institutions and researchers can decide to go above and beyond the minimum required, but that adds to costs and slows down research).

All of the above considerations are true before we get into anything else that might be specific to this event: inexplicably missing databases, bat colonies (which are a risk factor themselves) that may have been at the labs in Wuhan, or field research about which we know fairly little especially in terms of what was done recently.

The obligatory note here is the reminder that with pandemic potential pathogens, the one unlucky chain of incidents of course could be something that did not involve the lab at all, whatever the cover-up that came after it. Noting all of these possibilities isn’t the same as claiming they are conclusive proof, but the opposite of that is not dismissing these obvious issues.

Of course the cover-up makes it all difficult to assess—and it is a cover-up, for sure. Even the simplest origin tracing like raw anonymized data for the early cases has not been shared, “investigations” (by WHO) were allowed only after a year of delay and seem to consist of few hour visits to key locations where “investigators” are told something or other—and whatever data is shared or direct interviews are allowed with them doesn’t seem to be reliable either. Live animals or not at the seafood market? Unclear, depends on which claim backed/allowed by officials one thinks is a lie. Meanwhile obvious nonsense like frozen food chain being the source of the outbreak are not just floated, it makes its way into the WHO report. There’s also likely more early sequences that are not available to Western researchers, but unclear if they will ever be shared. Serology tests from around the country from before the outbreak, to try to figure out if it started elsewhere first, were supposed to have been done, and seem to have gone nowhere. These obstructions aren’t minor or hard to notice. Not using the term “cover-up” at this point is not doing justice to what’s going on.

Regardless, though, we could be forward looking.

I’m not writing all this because Dr. Baric has essentially outlined a few of the key virus-origins through lab/research involvement scenarios that are highlighted in my own article, though I admit it makes my life easier in dealing with the inevitable gaslighting attempts that follow even a modest recounting of facts of around this polarized issue.

But the real question is why these topics are not a bigger part of what coverage we do have. In contrast, one does see a lot of articles debunking the wildest virus-origins scenarios that involve bioweapons or really convoluted events—and there is no doubt some people are pushing crazy and unlikely setups. But again and again, throughout the past year, the more unlikely and extreme scenarios get “debunked” and the many actual questions and sensible and factual worries have been treated like… they don’t exist. 

After enough of that faux “debunking” and knocking down of genuinely unhinged stuff and/or strawman versiions of reasonable questions, people have gotten used to treating the entire question of virus-origins as something of only interest to crazies, or of no interest to anyone because there is no question there.

Any discussion about potential lab/research connections are then deemed to be “conspiracy theories” (used in the sense of extremely unlikely or impossible events being speculated on because of other reasons), rather than substantive discussions we can use as figuring out how to take steps so as not to find ourselves here again.

In this worldview, just saying there is a cover-up and that there are real questions about the virus origins, can be called a “conspiracy theory,” too, if you define conspiracy theory to mean any scenario in which authorities and people in power are lying, and are potentially coercing and pressuring everyone else, including the scientists. In reality, given this is China, such deliberate obstruction is obviously likely.

When Ralph Baric’s interview in MIT Technology Review got published I thought ‘well, great.’ This should generate some media coverage about biosafety and these specific questions about what was going on in the Wuhan labs. Dr. Baric has impeccable credentials, he’s noting real issues, and if people insist on likelihood calculations, he’s not saying any of this is definitive evidence of lab involvement—he personally thinks a natural origin is more likely (which I take to mean no lab involvement, rather than an engineered versus non-engineered virus since an accident or a screw-up at the lab, obviously, can be involve natural virus.)

And yet.

As far as I can tell, there has not been a peep in any major media outlet—I found one link to the interview in Foreign Policy, mentioned in passing. 

That's it, so far. 

Dr. Baric’s reasoned but substantively alarming concerns don’t fit the Fox News cycle (they would like to demonize many scientists, including him) and, apparently, it also doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else, either—though credit, obviously, to MIT Technology Review.

Surely there’s a better way.