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How US media misrepresent the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s laboratories and safety protocols

Even if we were to accept all the accusations against the WIV regarding their alleged subpar safety standards, none of it has any relevance to the Covid-19 pandemic unless it can be shown the WIV possessed SARS-CoV-2 in its lab before the outbreak, and there is no evidence of that.
 
by Joshua Cho 
 
Part 4 - WIV’s biosafety practices not substandard
 
For the sake of argument, even if one grants the unproven premise that the WIV’s BSL-4 lab was engaged in bioweapons research, it is still irrelevant to the question of whether SARS-CoV-2 originated there, since the WIV doesn’t conduct coronavirus research at a BSL-4 setting. Most coronavirus research around the world is conducted at BSL-2 and BSL-3 settings.

This demonstrates that those who suspect the pandemic originated from the WIV’s BSL-4 lab don’t seem to be aware of basic information about coronavirus research. Some notable examples are people like novelist Nicholson Baker citing Husseini’s suspicions of the WIV’s BSL-4 facility in a lengthy speculative piece for New York Magazine. Others include Josh Rogin citing similarly ignorant anonymous Trump administration officials to imply that the irrelevant State Department cable is “evidence” that supports “the possibility that the pandemic is the result of a lab accident in Wuhan.

However, lab-leak proponents like disgraced science writer Nicholas Wade — who penned an influential Medium blog post that was later reprinted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — are also fond of moving the goalposts to argue their evidence-free conspiracy theory. Wade cites Rogin’s long-debunked and irrelevant op-ed to claim that the BSL-4 lab’s “state of readiness considerably alarmed the State Department inspectors who visited it from the Beijing embassy in 2018,” before going on to make an entirely separate argument that the WIV’s biosafety standards were substandard and amounted to professional malpractice:

                   The real problem, however, was not the unsafe state of the Wuhan BSL4 lab but the fact that virologists worldwide don’t like working in BSL4 conditions….

                   Before 2020, the rules followed by virologists in China and elsewhere required that experiments with the SARS1 and MERS viruses be conducted in BSL3 conditions. But all other bat coronaviruses could be studied in BSL2, the next level down. BSL2 requires taking fairly minimal safety precautions, such as wearing lab coats and gloves, not sucking up liquids in a pipette, and putting up biohazard warning signs. Yet a gain-of-function experiment [wherein a pathogen is reasonably anticipated to gain enhanced virulence and/or transmissibility] conducted in BSL2 might produce an agent more infectious than either SARS1 or MERS. And if it did, then lab workers would stand a high chance of infection, especially if unvaccinated.

Wade briefly explained biosafety levels to readers before taking a quote from Dr. Shi Zhengli — the renowned virologist at the WIV — out of context to maximize the impression that the WIV’s biosafety standards were unprofessional:

                    There are four degrees of safety, designated BSL1 to BSL4, with BSL4 being the most restrictive and designed for deadly pathogens like the Ebola virus….

                   Much of Shi’s work on gain-of-function in coronaviruses was performed at the BSL2 safety level, as is stated in her publications and other documents. She has said in an interview with Science magazine that “[t]he coronavirus research in our laboratory is conducted in BSL-2 or BSL-3 laboratories.”

Wade also seemed comfortable parroting molecular biologist Richard Ebright’s heavily disputed claim that BSL-2 conditions are about as safe as a “dentist’s office,” which has been uncritically parroted in other reports as well:

                    “It is clear that some or all of this work was being performed using a biosafety standard  —  biosafety level 2, the biosafety level of a standard U.S. dentist’s office  — that would pose an unacceptably high risk of infection of laboratory staff upon contact with a virus having the transmission properties of SARS-CoV-2,” Ebright says.

Although Wade provides the link to the Science interview, he omits crucial context that dramatically changes the impression of Shi’s answer and the professionalism of the WIV’s work. When one actually reads the interview, one quickly discovers that the interviewer takes it for granted that most coronavirus research is actually conducted in BSL-2 and BSL-3 settings:

                    Q: Given that coronavirus research in most places is done in BSL-2 or BSL-3 Labs — and indeed, your WIV didn’t even have an operational BSL-4 until recently — why would you do any coronavirus experiments under BSL-4 conditions?


University of Utah virologist Goldstein also explained why likening a BSL-2 lab to a dentist’s office is a “ridiculous comparison:”

                        In BSL2, experiments are conducted inside a class II biosafety cabinet. These have negative pressure, so air circulates within the cabinet but doesn’t escape, and the air is HEPA filtered as it circulates inside the cabinet. A dentist’s office has none of these critical safety controls.”


This helps prevent aerosol droplets or splashes of samples (like viruses) from traveling around inside the air of the cabinet — though one can simply see for oneself how a biosafety cabinet works, and the proper precautions scientists follow while using it, to confirm how it differs from a mere “dentist’s office.”

Wade actually provides yet another damning instance of misrepresenting sources — consistent with his history of misrepresenting scientists — when he critiques an influential Nature letter ( he mischaracterizes it as a mere “opinion piece,” instead of being a short report on original research for “an outstanding finding”), which corroborates the opposite of what Wade claims in his blog post. The Nature letter in question is a study by a group of virologists led by Kristian Andersen, and it states that the “possibility of an inadvertent laboratory release of SARS-CoV-2” must be examined because SARS-like viruses (not SARS-CoV-1) found in bats are often studied at BSL-2 settings:

                    Basic research involving passage of bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses in cell culture and/or animal models has been ongoing for many years in biosafety level 2 laboratories across the world, and there are documented instances of laboratory escapes of SARS-CoV.


The authors later concluded that they “do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” and the statements above undermine Wade’s depiction of the WIV’s professionalism.

When I asked Dr. Goldstein and Dr. Perlman (who both research coronaviruses) to confirm this information, they each agreed that most coronavirus research is done at BSL-2 and BSL-3 laboratories and that there’s nothing unusual about Chinese scientists also doing coronavirus research in those settings. Goldstein declined to specifically comment on the quality of the WIV because he has never visited, and Perlman suggested that some scientists were concerned about experiments with bat viruses being performed at BSL-2 settings, even if they were “all done following the precautions used at the time.

However, Dr. Rasmussen clarified in a tweet that “many labs studied bat CoVs at BSL2 pre-Covid,” and that “there is no evidence that lab work was occurring with substandard containment,” further corroborating the claim in the Nature study, though she seemed to suggest that the practice “should be revisited.” Dr. Duehr also explained that “more biosafety controls are not always better,” and that “too many biosafety controls can also be dangerous,” because that can lead scientists to become fatigued and careless, as how scientists put on and take off gear are some of the most important moments in biosafety. This is why scientists use the appropriate amount of biosafety controls, rather than pointlessly using the most restrictive equipment for every experiment.

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