I Visited a Chinese Lab at the Center of a Biosafety Debate


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Source: The Intercept

I was living in Shanghai when a new avian flu virus emerged there in 2013. The outbreak started in February, shortly after the Lunar New Year, when an 87-year-old man and his two sons showed up at a local hospital with a fever and other symptoms. By early March, the elderly man was dead, leading an anonymous Chinese social media user to speculate about the strange circumstances surrounding his demise. Censors swiftly deleted the post.

Shanghai officials initially said that the man had died from routine complications, but by the end of the month, the government’s claims had given way to a troubling admission: The Chinese health ministry notified the World Health Organization of the emergence of a new avian flu virus called H7N9. The death toll rose to seven, and cases spread to provinces surrounding Shanghai. Public health experts lost sleep worrying that the world was on the brink of a pandemic.

H7N9 would turn out to be a minor threat compared to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, but the path it took will sound familiar to anyone who has tracked the news over the last year. Initial cases in China were followed by censorship and secrecy, which gave way to lingering suspicion of both the government and Chinese scientists.

I remember that trajectory vividly because I was the lead China correspondent for the journal Science during the H7N9 outbreak. Many times over the past year, amid seesawing and often misleading media coverage of the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2, I have thought back on one particular story I wrote in 2013.

I profiled a flu researcher who was helping authorities contain the spread of H7N9. Even as she became the point person for the outbreak, she was at the center of a scientific controversy for an experiment she had done on another avian flu virus. That work involved tweaking pathogens in order to study how they might become more contagious, a type of study that is often lumped under the shorthand “gain of function.” Proponents of such experiments argued that a better understanding of how viruses are transmitted from one species to the next could help public health experts ward off natural outbreaks. Critics worried that instead of aiding in global health, her research could spark a pandemic.

Republicans believed a few vocal politicians who claimed, wrongly, that the pandemic was definitely caused by a lab leak, and Democrats believed a few vocal scientists who assured them, also wrongly, that it was definitely impossible.

That was before gain-of-function work got stirred into the toxic stew that is American politics, before it was mixed up with feelings about former President Donald Trump and ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, racism and anti-racism, and faith in science. Before Republicans believed a few vocal politicians who claimed, wrongly, that the pandemic was definitely caused by a lab leak, and Democrats believed a few vocal scientists who assured them, also wrongly, that such a thing was definitely impossible.

To be sure, gain-of-function research was political even back in 2013, but only within the scientific community. (The broad label “gain of function” can apply to less risky research, but critics are concerned mainly with research that involves making pathogens more transmissible in a way that might pose a risk to humans.) Understanding that debate is key to grasping how and why the mainstream media has charted such an abrupt shift, from branding speculation about a lab leak a conspiracy theory to enthusiastically, and prematurely, embracing it.

When the first rumors about a new virus trickled out on Chinese social media back in 2013, I was at home with a newborn. I came back from maternity leave early to cover the new strain and soon flew to Harbin, a city in northeastern China, to interview the country’s leading avian flu expert, Chen Hualan. Because my baby was so little, I brought her and my partner along.

As the head of Harbin Veterinary Research Institute’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory, Chen oversaw animal testing efforts for H7N9. Like many viruses before it, including Ebola, MERS, and the first SARS, H7N9 jumped naturally from animals to people. So-called natural spillovers often happen in densely populated areas where people live close to animals. (That frequency is one reason many scientists suspect a natural origin with SARS-CoV-2.) With H7N9, the likely culprit was poultry markets. I wanted to talk with Chen about the early days of the outbreak, when her lab had scrambled to sequence and analyze H7N9 strains isolated from chickens and pigeons.

But I also wanted to ask about her other research. Shortly before my trip, she and her colleagues had published a paper in Science detailing a massive gain-of-function experiment with guinea pigs. It had involved swapping gene segments from H5N1 with those from the H1N1 swine virus, then infecting guinea pigs with the hybrid viruses. Her team found that they could get the virus to leap from one animal to another by switching out a single gene. The guinea pigs stood in for humans.

Even as China was in the midst of an outbreak with a clearly natural origin, critics worried that risky research on pathogens could give rise to a worse one. But that was eight years ago, before the discourse on such research had geopolitical implications.

Arriving in Harbin, we checked into a neoclassical-style hotel overlooking Stalin Park. My partner and baby stayed there while I taxied over to the avian flu lab, which at the time was housed in a sprawling complex built before the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution.

A northerly outpost that lags behind China’s more developed cities, Harbin is not a logical place for a lab where scientists work on highly dangerous pathogens, but in China, as elsewhere in the world, decisions about where to locate such labs are not always driven by biosafety concerns. In this case, Harbin had become a research hub through a mixture of chance and mission creep. Northeast China is a traditional agricultural region with a lot of livestock. Decades earlier, farmers’ needs had turned Harbin into a center of veterinary research. In time, veterinary science gave way to a lab focused on animals that was classified as biosafety level P3, or BSL-3. In 2018, the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute moved to a new campus with a BSL-4 laboratory, the highest biosafety level. (The other BSL-4 lab in China is at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the institute at the center of the SARS-CoV-2 lab-leak hypothesis.)

Chen was soft-spoken and likable. She showed me around the parts of the building that didn’t require a gown and other protective equipment and asked about my baby. She told me that when she had started her research in the 1990s, virologists in China had trouble even obtaining strains to work on. After solving that problem, they faced other challenges. “When they got a virus, they just put it in the freezer,” she said of scientists in China in the early aughts. “People didn’t know how to do research with viruses. They may not be happy to hear me say it, but it’s true.”

Chen left for the United States to do postdoctoral work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, under renowned flu scientist Kanta Subbarao. Three years later, she was offered a position back in China heading up the lab in Harbin. Chen sensed that research conditions were changing and the country would become an exciting place for flu research.

Over the decades that followed, her hunch was borne out. China became a site of cutting-edge experiments and large grant budgets. Researchers worked closely with scientists elsewhere in the world and published their findings in top journals. For infectious disease surveillance, which requires a global network tracking emerging outbreaks, that collaboration was critical.

But as the international profile of Chinese science rose, it was beset by the controversies that plagued science elsewhere in the world.

As the international profile of Chinese science rose, it was beset by the controversies that plagued science elsewhere in the world.

Chen’s paper on H5N1 and guinea pigs was published in May 2013, when H7N9 was still spreading through southern China. More than a dozen researchers had worked on the study, which involved 250 guinea pigs, 1,000 mice, and 27,000 infected chicken eggs. Their goal was to determine what changes would enable the H5N1 virus to spread more effectively. After swapping out the single gene, they found that an infected animal could pass the virus to a healthy one in an adjoining cage through respiratory droplets.

A firestorm ensued. In comments that were splashed across the pages of the Daily Mail, former U.K. Royal Society President Lord Robert May called the study “appallingly irresponsible.”

Criticism came from within China, too. When the paper was published, “scientists in China were pretty shocked,” Liu Wenjun, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Key Laboratory of Pathogenic Microbiology & Immunology, told me at the time. “This artificial virus could cause a big problem in China. People are really concerned about biosecurity.”

Chen said that all of her research had been above-board and that following the outcry, China’s Ministry of Agriculture had sent two people to the lab to make sure that its viruses were properly stored. Her team had also developed impressive vaccines against avian illnesses. She felt that the criticism was off-base, she said, and added that May, a theoretical ecologist, didn’t understand her work.

Virologists who did similar research had a completely different take on Chen’s work. I spoke with five of them. One quibbled with the design of the experiment, but the others used words like “exemplary” and “highly respected.” Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, told me that he had dreamed of doing exactly the same experiment as Chen but couldn’t because of various constraints. “I do not have a single grant for which I could afford to work with 13 people for two years to yield a paper, no matter how excellent that paper is,” he wrote in an email. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison also spoke highly of Chen and told me that her lab was state of the art.

But Fouchier and Kawaoka were not entirely neutral on the topic. They had come under fire for similar experiments. Studies they had done involving a potentially airborne version of H5N1 had sparked a global outcry in 2011, when news of the experiments leaked before they published their results. In 2014, studies including Chen’s, Fouchier’s, and Kawaoka’s would prompt critics to form the Cambridge Working Group, which called for halting research on pathogens that could cause a pandemic pending a thorough review.

The Cambridge group’s work spurred the U.S. National Institutes of Health to impose a moratorium on certain types of gain-of-function research that same year. Three years later, the NIH lifted the ban and replaced it with a more lenient framework. Back then, there was a sense that virologists could not police themselves, that their work needed to be regulated. But for portions of the political left in the wake of the pandemic, that notion has become heretical.

Until recently, the suggestion that a virus could leak from a lab had no correlation with one’s political beliefs. The first SARS virus leaked from labs several times — including at least twice from the National Institute of Virology in Beijing. A 1977 outbreak of H1N1 in the Soviet Union and China is believed to have been caused by Soviet scientists experimenting with a live virus in a lab. A number of leading American laboratories have had significant safety breaches as well, including at the CDC.

Before the pandemic, the scientific press regularly covered such risks. In a 2017 article on the opening of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Nature raised concerns about biosafety. The notion of a lab leak was also floated by Science early in the Covid-19 pandemic in an article that also discussed a natural spillover.

Then influential infectious disease expert and zoologist Peter Daszak entered the fray. Daszak’s organization EcoHealth Alliance has distributed U.S. government grant money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and he has worked closely with researchers there. He organized a group of scientists to write a statement, published in The Lancet in February 2020, decrying the spread of “rumors and misinformation” around the origins of the pandemic. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the group wrote. In apparently dismissing the plausible prospect of a lab accident along with outlandish propositions about bioweapons, the letter helped silence debate on the matter.

The discourse grew even more fraught later that spring, when Trump blamed the pandemic on the Wuhan lab without citing evidence.

Some journalists apparently saw it as their duty to uncritically report what researchers said, as if scientists were a neutral foil to Trump.

In the coverage that followed, some journalists apparently saw it as their duty to uncritically report what researchers said, as if scientists were a neutral foil to Trump. Vox extensively quoted Daszak in an explainer debunking the lab-leak hypothesis.

Daszak ended up on both the WHO and Lancet origins committees, which are investigating the causes of the coronavirus pandemic. He chairs The Lancet’s committee. Last fall Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who sits on the WHO’s advisory committee on human genome editing, wrote to Lancet editor Richard Horton to flag Daszak’s conflict of interest. He added that he respected Daszak’s work, writing, “I am not at all suggesting that he did anything wrong, just that one of the possible origin stories includes him.”

Metzl says that the Lancet editor didn’t write back. “I was a bit naïve then and couldn’t imagine they would knowingly make such a bad decision,” he told me. As Metzl noted, a conflict of interest doesn’t in any way suggest guilt. But Daszak’s ties fueled online suspicion and frustrated biosafety experts who were hoping for real answers.

Following the WHO committee’s trip to China, Metzl helped lead a group of scientists who wrote an open letter calling for a more extensive investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2. They followed up with another one after the committee concluded, following a circumscribed tour of Wuhan and an analysis of selective data, that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.”

A number of the signatories of both letters were French scientists. Jacques van Helden, a professor of bioinformatics at Aix-Marseille Université, told me that the discussion around the pandemic’s origins has been less polarized in France, noting that Trump had tainted the issue in the United States. “I suspect that this might even have led a part of the American scientific community to avoid addressing the question,” he said, “because expressing the possibility that the virus would result from a lab leak would have been perceived as support for Trump.”

Another open letter calling for a transparent and objective investigation followed, this time from a group of leading experts. Among those who signed were evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Stanford University microbiologist David Relman, and Harvard University epidemiologist and microbiologist Marc Lipsitch, who years earlier had founded the Cambridge group that pushed for restrictions on gain-of-function research.

Even WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that the lab-leak hypothesis “requires further investigation.” Vox added a note to its explainer noting that “scientific consensus has shifted.”

But the moment of correction we’re now in is dangerous in its own way. There is still no direct evidence to support a lab leak, and many scientists with no stake in the outcome still say that a natural origin is more likely. Scientific consensus has not, in fact, shifted toward a lab origin. But some pundits with the risky combination of a lack of expertise and an agenda have argued that a lab leak caused the pandemic, case closed. Bari Weiss, the former New York Times columnist who spends most of her time railing against cancel culture, recently published an interview with Mike Pompeo, who told her that the evidence “points in the single direction of this having been a laboratory leak,” though he added, “I can’t lay down the proof for you.”

The most honest experts say simply that they don’t know. “We’re not taking an advocacy position on one scenario being more likely than another,” Bloom, the evolutionary biologist, said in a Q&A published by his institute. “As a scientist it’s important to clearly convey that there is scientific uncertainty — especially because this is a hot-button topic.”

There is vitriol on all sides. Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute who advocates for a fuller investigation of the lab-leak hypothesis, has been accused of being a race traitor. (Chan is Canadian and of Singaporean descent.) Virologist Angela Rasmussen, a vocal proponent of a natural origin, has been viciously harassed on Twitter. The Daily Mail recently sent paparazzi to Daszak’s home, then ran photos of him calling the police. Scientists in China have been hounded too. The Harbin Veterinary Research Institute and the Wuhan Institute of Virology have removed some staff information from their websites. A few weeks ago, I received hate mail from someone who was upset that I had mentioned the lab-leak hypothesis in an article about origins last spring, when it was all but untouchable for progressive media, but didn’t give Trump proper credit.

We should let science and evidence prevail while recognizing what my reporting suggested back in 2013: that science, like any other discipline, is shaped by competing interests. Lipsitch, the Harvard epidemiologist, underlined that point in a Brookings Institution event with Chan earlier this month.

“I’ve come to the view that we shouldn’t trust scientists more or less than we trust other people,” Lipsitch said at the event. “We should trust science. And when scientists speak science, we should trust them, because we should recognize that they are speaking in a way that is based on evidence. When scientists express political views or policy preferences or even claims about how the world is that are not citing evidence, we should not give those scientists undue deference.”

In those moments, he continued, scientists are not being scientific. “They are people. We are people.”

Mara Hvistendahl writes about national security and technology. Before joining The Intercept, she was a National Fellow at New America and the China bureau chief for Science. Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Economist, and Wired, and she has appeared as a commentator on the BBC, CBS, MSNBC, and NPR.

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