They have refused to share direct records from the lab. Dr. Shi echoed this stance in May when a group of scientists, including her co-author Dr. Baric, pushed for broader transparency. “It’s definitely not acceptable,” she emailed a reporter in response to the group’s request to see her lab’s records.
Meanwhile, throughout December 2019, Wuhan doctors suspected that a SARS-like virus was on the loose, and the local government arrested whistle-blowers, including at least one health care worker. The cover-up by Communist Party officials continued until the prominent SARS scientist Zhong Nanshan traveled to Wuhan on Jan. 18 and raised the alarm.
That said, circumstantial evidence casts some doubt on the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was bioengineered.
For instance, aspects of the virus that have made some suspect it was bioengineered could also be evidence that the virus evolved naturally. A lot of attention has been drawn to an unusual feature on its spike protein called a furin cleavage site, with which the virus can better infect a human cell. It’s one of several odd features of SARS-CoV-2 that are weird enough that even virologists who greatly doubt lab involvement told me they were shocked to see it. In fact, even beyond the furin cleavage site, SARS-CoV-2 was a virus that scientists had never seen before. Evolution can be a random accumulation of weird, novel features. For the research on viruses that scientists like Dr. Shi do for high-level scientific publications, such a combination would be incongruous. Their work usually involves examining or changing one element of a virus at a time to find out what each element does and can be made to do. If your computer conked out, for instance, you wouldn’t see what’s wrong by simultaneously changing the power source, the cable and the electrical outlet. You’d test each one individually. Having a variety of unusual elements leads to hard-to-assess results, not a paper in Nature.
But even if we put aside directed engineering, regular lab work at the Wuhan labs has raised concerns.
In 2016 the Wuhan institute reported experimenting on a live bat coronavirus that could infect human cells in a BSL-2 lab — a biosafety level that has been compared with that of a dentist’s office. Protective gear other than gloves and lab coats is usually optional at this level, and there’s often no airflow control sealing ventilation between the work area and the rest of the building. Michael Lin, an associate professor of neurobiology and bioengineering at Stanford, told me it was “an actual scandal, recorded in print,” that a SARS-like virus capable of replicating in human cells was worked on under such low safety conditions.
Just trying to culture bat viruses in the lab can create risks that the scientists may not even be aware of. While trying and failing to cultivate one strain, they might inadvertently culture another one they don’t even know about. It’s even possible, Dr. Lin told me, that viruses can coexist in a single sample and quietly recombine, giving rise to something novel but undetected. Under BSL-2 conditions or even sloppy BSL-3 conditions, researchers could get exposed to a pathogen they didn’t know existed.
Several scientists who signed The Lancet letter denouncing the consideration of anything but natural origins have since said they are more open to lab involvement. One, Bernard Roizman, an emeritus virologist at the University of Chicago with four honorary professorships from Chinese universities, said he was leaning toward believing there was a lab accident.