0 percent chance: Former French official who oversaw safety standards in the Wuhan laboratory rejects leak theory

According to memos from the U.S. Department of State received by the Washington Post last year, U.S. officials noted a lack of trained staff in the then-new laboratory in 2018, which raised questions about its operations.

Gras, who worked at the WIV between 2012 and 2017 and gained insights into the staff and operation of the institute, said that it would make little sense for researchers to have a BSL-4 system for examining a coronavirus for reasons of cost and time to use considerations as a BSL-3 laboratory was typically used. He also vouched for the standards of the institute and the professionalism of its researchers.

On the left, the BSL-4 laboratory on the Wuhan Institute of Virology campus. Photo: AFP

“I have no problem working with it [BSL-4] lab, ”said Gras, who worked in the immunovirology department of the French Commission on Alternative Energy and Atomic Energy before moving to the Foreign Service. “I wouldn’t feel in danger. The laboratory is of a high standard. It was my daily job to check this out and as I had the security background [consultant], Laboratory designer and virology scientist, I was 100 percent involved. “

Gras estimated the likelihood of a leak from the BSL-4 lab at “zero percent” and the chance of a pathogen escaping from the institute’s BSL-3 lab on another campus in Wuhan was between 1 and 3 percent based on its familiarity with this facility and standard procedures at this biosafety level. However, he found he hadn’t been to the labs since 2017.

Theories about the role of a laboratory accident in the onset of the pandemic emerge after research conducted by the

World health organization (WHO) was considered restricted by the Chinese authorities. The WHO mission has found little evidence like that Virus started spreading in Wuhanwhere it was first identified in December 2019.

Several media reports in the past few weeks also quoted anonymous former and current US government officials who discussed information that three WIV researchers fell ill in the month before the outbreak in Wuhan – which raises questions about the institute’s denial of unusual diseases the beginning of. could be the pandemic.

Last month ordered its intelligence services to step up their efforts to determine the origin of Covid-19, while leading US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci last week asked Financial Times China to review the WIV’s medical records in an interview with the Financial Times China – To release workers reportedly ill, along with the records of six miners who fell ill in 2012 after working in a bat cave in Yunnan Province.

The Sunday Times reported last week that British intelligence agencies now believe it is “feasible” for the virus to escape a laboratory.

Gras, whose role was identified by This Week in Asia after research into France’s involvement in the laboratory project, said the renewed controversy was ultimately irrelevant as he had little doubt that the virus is natural and any accidental leak would have required the laboratory , a closer relative of the virus is known than anyone else in its stores.

WHO ends Covid-19 mission in Wuhan, says laboratory leak

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WHO ends Covid-19 mission in Wuhan, says laboratory leak “extremely unlikely”

“I am 100 percent sure that it was not designed or developed in a laboratory,” said Gras, who was responsible for the Franco-Chinese cooperation on emerging infectious diseases and left the government in 2017. “When you see this virus, all the scientists around the world who have looked at this virus will say the same thing as the WHO said: This virus is a natural virus.

Instead, he said, discussions about laboratory safety would be merged with the separate topic of controversial research on virus manipulation.

Scientists who analyzed the virus have largely concluded that it most likely evolved naturally and passed from a bat to humans, possibly through an intermediate animal. But some have raised the possibility that it was genetically engineered.

In a study published in Nature Medicine in March of last year, an international team of prominent virologists found that the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence provided “strong evidence” that the virus was not artificially manipulated and was “most likely the result of natural selection” “.

But notable figures have disputed that conclusion, including David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning virologist. In an influential article by science writer Nicholas Wade published last month, Baltimore described the presence of a furin cleavage site in the coronavirus spike protein – a property that makes it easier for the virus to enter cells – as a “smoking weapon.” this challenged the explanation of natural origin.

However, he later told the Los Angeles Times that he regretted using the phrase and wanted to say that the furin cleavage site was “a conspicuous indication of a possible origin of the virus”.

In a letter published in the Science Journal last month, 18 prominent scientists called for a serious investigation into “natural and laboratory spillovers” through transparent, objective, and data-driven research.

The laboratory leak theory does not necessarily imply genetic manipulation, but rather considers whether an accident could result in a naturally occurring virus infecting researchers.

The WIV has vigorously denied that it could have been the source of the outbreak. It has so far refused to open its files to independent investigators, and Beijing has also rejected such calls, saying the US should allow investigations into its high-security facilities.

A member of the World Health Organization team wears protective clothing during a field visit to the Animal Disease Control and Prevention Center in Hubei. Photo: AP

A member of the World Health Organization team wears protective clothing during a field visit to the Animal Disease Control and Prevention Center in Hubei. Photo: AP

The institute’s BSL-4 facility, built using French technology and expertise and costing around 300 million yen ($ 46.9 million), was officially opened in 2017 with a grand opening ceremony in the presence of then French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. In April last year, President Emmanuel Macron’s office said there was “no factual evidence” of the news reports at the time linking the facility to the pandemic.

Gras said the Chinese authorities did not interfere with his work, despite several attempts by Chinese firms involved in the construction to use cheaper materials to cut costs – which he refused.

The laboratory design expert also defended Shi Zhengli, the director of the WIV Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is increasingly under scrutiny for her study of coronaviruses in bats, including manipulating pathogens to understand whether they can infect human cells is taken.

Shi has denied the possibility that Covid-19 could have come from her lab, describing the “sleepless nights” she spent worrying about the possibility of a leak before realizing the virus’s sequence was inconsistent matched the one kept in her laboratory.

Last February, Shi’s team announced that the lab was in possession of a virus called RaTG13, which was 96.2 percent identical to SARS-CoV-2 – the closest known relative of the virus that caused the pandemic, when too far away to be a direct ancestor.

Critics have speculated that the lab may harbor other undisclosed viruses, a suspicion fueled by the release of a State Department “fact sheet” in the final days of the Trump administration alleging at the institute secret military research had been carried out.

Shi has also denied that military experiments took place in her laboratory.

Gras, who met Shi personally during his time in China, said he didn’t think the scientist was lying or hiding the nature of her research.

“She’s like any international scientist I know,” he said. “So she wants to publish. As far as I know, when she has a new virus, the new virus is in the database and will be released when it’s interesting [enough] to be published. So I have absolutely no information or impressions or feelings or whatever that would hide anything. “

Gras said he believed the discussion about the origin of the pandemic has become politicized. “For me it is [no longer] a scientific question, ”he said.

Additional coverage by Simone McCarthy

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