Back on May 14th, 18 scientists wrote a letter to Science calling for a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Among their number was a gentleman named Ralph Baric, one of the world’s leading coronavirus experts.
Baric has been the subject of controversy over the last few months, given that he previously developed a method for engineering bat coronaviruses, and then taught that method to Dr Shi (the “Batwoman”) at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In a recent interview with the MIT Technology Review, he divulges some interesting details about how researchers work with coronaviruses in the lab, as well as how they should do such work.
Baric begins the interview by quashing the suggestion (made by Senator Rand Paul on the floor of the U.S. Senate) that he has ever created a “supervirus”. And later in the interview he states, “there’s really no strong and actionable data that argues that the virus was engineered”.
Okay, so he’s not convinced the virus was “engineered”. But what about the possibility that a virus collected from nature escaped from the Wuhan lab? Baric says, “I personally feel that SARS-CoV-2 is a natural pathogen that emerged from wildlife.”
And he gives the following rationale: “Historical precedent argues that all other human coronaviruses emerged from animals. No matter how many bat viruses are at the WIV, nature has many, many more.” However, this rather unconvincing argument has already been addressed by Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times.
It’s hardly surprising that “all other human coronaviruses emerged from animals”, given that sophisticated research labs have only been around for a few decades. If we take the period “since the advent of molecular biology”, Tufekci notes, then a large number of outbreaks have been caused by lab leaks (including almost every case of SARS since 2002).
What Baric has to say about the nature of lab work is more interesting. When asked about safety standards he assures the interviewer, “We do everything at BSL-3 plus,” by which he means that he and his colleagues “wear impervious Tyvek suits, aprons, and booties and are double-gloved”.
He then confirms that “the Chinese have done a lot of their bat coronavirus research under BSL-2 conditions”. (Note that BSL-2 has been compared to the safety level of a dentist’s office.) And as Baric notes, “lab-acquired infections occur much more frequently at BSL-2.”
When asked why he signed the letter calling for a new investigation, Baric states, “There must be some recognition that a laboratory infection could have occurred under BSL-2 operating conditions.” And he goes on to say, “If you study hundreds of different bat viruses at BSL-2, your luck may eventually run out.”
The interview with Baric contains various other insights, and is worth reading in full.