Inside the risky bat-virus engineering that links America to Wuhan

Baric was a legend in the field, but no matter how many safety precautions are taken, there is always a chance that a never-before-seen virus can escape and trigger an outbreak. Baric felt that the extreme measures he took in the lab minimized the risk, and in fact made his work categorically different from the high-risk influenza work the NIH had been targeting. He also felt that his research was urgent: new cases of MERS, spread by camels, were even then popping up in the Middle East. Eventually the NIH agreed, waving him forward.

His 2015 paper, “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence,” was a tour de force, utilizing bleeding-edge genetic technology to alert the civilized world to a looming danger on its periphery. It also revived concerns about gain-of-function experiments, which Baric had known it would. In the paper, he spelled out the extra precautions he’d taken and held up the research as a test case. “The potential to prepare for and mitigate future outbreaks must be weighed against the risk of creating more dangerous pathogens,” he wrote. “Scientific review panels may deem similar studies building chimeric viruses based on circulating strains too risky to pursue.”

The NIH decided the risk was worth it. In a potentially fateful decision, it funded work similar to Baric’s at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which soon used its own reverse-genetics technology to make numerous coronavirus chimeras.