How China emulated US techniques to construct novel coronaviruses in unsafe conditions (https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/06/29/1027290/gain-of-function-risky-bat-virus-engineering-links-america-to-wuhan/)
“In 2013, the American virologist Ralph Baric approached Zhengli Shi at a meeting. Baric was a top expert in coronaviruses, with hundreds of papers to his credit, and Shi, along with her team at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, had been discovering them by the fistful in bat caves. In one sample of bat guano, Shi had detected the genome of a new virus, called SHC014, that was one of the two closest relatives to the original SARS virus, but her team had not been able to culture it in the lab.
“Baric had developed a way around that problem—a technique for “reverse genetics” in coronaviruses. Not only did it allow him to bring an actual virus to life from its genetic code, but he could mix and match parts of multiple viruses. He wanted to take the ‘spike’ gene from SHC014 and move it into a genetic copy of the SARS virus he already had in his lab. The spike molecule is what lets a coronavirus open a cell and get inside it. The resulting chimera would demonstrate whether the spike of SHC014 would attach to human cells.
“In 2014, the NIH awarded a five-year, $3.75 million grant to EcoHealth Alliance to study the risk that more bat-borne coronaviruses would emerge in China, using the same kind of techniques Baric had pioneered. Some of that work was to be subcontracted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“Two years later, Daszak and Shi published a paper reporting how the Chinese lab had engineered different versions of WIV1 and tested their infectiousness in human cells. The paper announced that the WIV had developed its own reverse-genetics system, following the Americans’ lead. It also included a troubling detail: the work, which was funded in part by the NIH grant, had been done in a BSL-2 lab. That meant the same viruses that Daszak was holding up as a clear and present danger to the world were being studied under conditions that, according to Richard Ebright, matched “the biosafety level of a US dentist’s office.”
“Ebright believes one factor at play was the cost and inconvenience of working in high-containment conditions. The Chinese lab’s decision to work at BSL-2, he says, would have “effectively increas[ed] rates of progress, all else being equal, by a factor of 10 to 20”—a huge edge.
“The WIV had continued to unearth dozens of new SARS-like coronaviruses in bat caves, and it reported making chimeras with eight of them by fusing the spikes of the new viruses to the chassis of WIV1. Two of them replicated well in human cells. They were, for all intents and purposes, brand-new pathogens.”