Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus research scientist Shi Zhengli was denied permission to use the BSL4 lab for SARS experiments, according to a U.S. State Department cable obtained by U.S. Right to Know.
The cable states that The National Health and Family Planning Commission of China, which was responsible for overseeing laws and regulations regarding public health, denied Shi permission to use the high-containment lab.
This information was redacted when the cable was originally disclosed by the Washington Post in April 2020, though it was tweeted by Josh Rogin in July 2020. U.S. Right to Know obtained the fully unredacted cable, confirming Rogin’s tweets.
The previously redacted sentences along with more recent reports point to biosafety gaps at the WIV prior to the pandemic. According to the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions, WIV researchers needed to adapt their biosafety methods and equipment when they couldn’t obtain necessary technologies from abroad.
The Senate report even suggested that accidents with viruses in the BSL4 lab may have already occurred.
Release of the cable early in the pandemic stoked the controversy over Covid-19’s origins by highlighting biosafety concerns at the Wuhan lab famous for studying and manipulating coronaviruses.
Early reports described the leaked cable as a “warning shot” about unsafe conditions at the WIV. Their newly operational BSL4 lab didn’t have enough trained staff to safely operate the facilities, and the approval process for viral research was described as “opaque.”
The unredacted cable portions show just how opaque this process was, and raises questions about research oversight at the WIV.
Shi is considered an expert coronavirologist. She has spent over 18 years studying coronaviruses, with a special focus on those related to SARS and MERS. Her research includes controversial and potentially risky experiments, like generating a chimeric coronavirus capable of infecting human cells using SARS as the backbone.
SARS is classified as a Risk Group 3-level pathogen by the NIH as well as a select agent, and should generally be handled according to BSL3 practices. According to the CDC’s Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories guide (BMBL), if an experiment causes risk factors like virulence or pathogenicity to increase, more stringent biosafety controls may be required.
Other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show that Chinese labs generally used BSL3 labs for SARS research.
No information is given in the cable about the experiments Shi intended to do, but her request to use the BSL4 lab suggests that she anticipated an increased biosafety risk.
“A request to elevate containment to BSL-4 could reflect an elevated assessment of risk.” said Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University. According to Ebright, this could happen because of “an increase in risk associated with the pathogen … Or, for example, an increase in risk associated with the experimental methods.”
Antonius VanDongen, a biology professor at Duke University agreed, stating that, at the time the cable was written, BSL4 labs were usually reserved for the deadliest viruses like Ebola or Nipah.
“If the request for BSL4 access was for SARS experiments, the researchers must have been aware they increased the pathogenicity by a lot,” said VanDongen.
He then explained, “Because working under BSL4 conditions is extremely cumbersome and slow, one does not request access to those facilities unless absolutely required by the type of experiments you need to do and the pathogenicity of the virus you are working on.”
The cable doesn’t state whether Shi carried out the planned experiments at a lower biosafety level than requested. However, lack of access to high-containment biolabs for risky research can potentially lead to accidental infections among researchers.
“Denying permission to elevate containment for high-risk research is dangerously close to granting permission to trigger a pandemic,” said Ebright.
The unredacted cable states that no reason was given for denying Shi permission to use the BSL4 lab for SARS work. According to the cable, Shi said that government procedures for approving viral research were not transparent.
An ‘interesting’ redaction
The cable describes potentially risky research performed at the WIV at lower biosafety levels. The scientists found a bat cave harboring many SARS-like coronaviruses, which they showed had the potential to jump directly from bats to humans.
The unredacted cable states that “it is interesting that WIV scientists are allowed to study the SARS-like coronaviruses isolated from bats while they are precluded from studying human-disease causing SARS coronavirus in their new BSL-4 lab until permission for such work is granted by the NHFCP [National Health and Family Planning Commission].”
“It is interesting” was originally redacted, covering up the cable writer’s curiosity over apparently contrasting biosafety standards.
In fact, biosafety standards may have been more inconsistent than indicated in the cable. While work on SARS wasn’t permitted at the BSL4 lab, work on SARS-like coronaviruses may have been done only at BSL2.
The ability of some SARS-like coronaviruses to use the ACE2 receptor suggests that they may be able to infect people using the same mechanism as SARS. Experiments done in partnership with the WIV also showed that some might be able to escape or evade therapeutics developed for SARS.
Despite this, the WIV’s biosafety committee allowed bat coronaviruses to be handled according to BSL2 standards unless the experiments were done in animals.
WIV needed international assistance
The final significant redaction suggests that China did not have the expertise necessary to safely operate its new BSL4 lab.
In order to fully and safely run the lab, “China is likely to need additional technical assistance and advice from the international community,” a previously redacted portion reads.
Yuan Zhiming, a professor and investigator at the WIV, expressed similar sentiments in an article published just before the pandemic began.
According to his article, regulations for research authorization and pathogen management needed to be strengthened. Zhiming also wrote that “most laboratories lack specialized biosafety managers… This makes it difficult to identify and mitigate potential safety hazards.”
Without specially trained staff and more transparent oversight, the cable suggests, the international community, and even Chinese scientists, might not be able to trust that Chinese government oversight conforms to the highest safety standards.
The documents reported in this story were obtained from the State Department via litigation through the Freedom of Information Act and can be found here.