A French biosecurity expert formerly based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s BSL-4 laboratory has told Hong Kong press that there is "no doubt" about the safety of the facility, despite growing speculation over a possible lab accident that could have started the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gabriel Gras, a former French official in charge of safety standards at the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) maximum security lab, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) there was no chance that the coronavirus escaped from the institute.
The statement comes amid growing demand for a more thorough investigation on what started out as a fringe hypothesis.
Gras, a virology researcher and biosecurity expert was employed as a technical expert at the French embassy in China. He told the SCMP that he had “no doubt” about the safety of the institute’s biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory, the first of that security specification to be built in China.
Supervising its construction and accreditation was part of a collaboration between the French government and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Lab leak theory
The "lab leak" theory was initially proposed by Chinese scientists, then withdrawn, but reinvigorated periodically by various Chinese and international researchers pushing the "bat origin" theory, which says that the virus jumped from certain exotic animals to humans.
But the theory – also pushed by former US President Donald Trump – gained new momentum after WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus said in April that "all hypotheses remain on table".
US President Joe Biden then ordered intelligence services to find the root cause of the pandemic. According to US State Department memos obtained by The Washington Post last year, United States officials in 2018 noted a lack of trained staff at the then-new laboratory, raising questions about its operations.
But Gabriel Gras, who worked at the WIV between 2012 and 2017, was quoted by the SCMP as saying that "it would make little sense for researchers to use a BSL-4 facility to study a coronavirus due to cost and time considerations, as a BSL-3 laboratory was usually used." The newspaper said that he also vouched for the institute’s standards and the professionalism of its researchers.
“I do not have any problem working in this [BSL-4] lab,” said Gras, who worked in the immunovirology division of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission before joining the foreign service.
“I would not feel in danger. The lab is of a high standard. It was my daily work to verify this, and as I had the background of safety consultant, lab designer, and virology scientist, I was 100 percent involved,” he was quoted as saying.
The SCMP said that Gras put the chance of a leak from the BSL-4 laboratory at “zero percent”, and "the possibility of a pathogen escaping from the institute’s BSL-3 laboratory on another campus in Wuhan at between 1 percent and 3 percent", based on his familiarity with that facility and standard operations at that biosafety level.
He added that he had not, however, "not been to the laboratories since 2017".