Could a lab have been the accidental source of the COVID-19 outbreak? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Could a lab have been the accidental source of the COVID-19 outbreak?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wades into the dispute.

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Among many unfortunate truths about the pandemic currently ravaging us is this one: we don’t know jack about it.

We don’t know how to prevent or cure it, we don’t know whether it can infect us more than once, and we don’t know how it suddenly developed—rising like a bat out of hell and making its way into our lungs.  

We know something about bat poop, however. Some of these alarming night creatures—all teeth and claws, riding on devil wings and flapping up out of nowhere—have feces that harbor a similar coronavirus. They’ve been identified as the original source of the 2003 SARS epidemic and, we’re told, they probably incubated this new COVID-19 plague, too. 

Unless, you know, it came from a lab. Out of our ignorance, and our politics, theories have emerged.

COVID-19 cases first showed up in Wuhan, China, mostly among people exposed to a live animal and seafood market there. When Donald Trump used the presidential podium to brand it “the Chinese virus,'' he fed into fears already stoked by right-wing conspiracy theorists suggesting that the virus was a laboratory-created weapon of biological warfare.

These conspiracy theories were quickly dismissed by mainstream experts. It was inconceivable that China would purposely unleash such a catastrophe on its own people. And scientists examining the structure of the virus were increasingly convinced that it was a naturally occurring phenomenon. The dominant theory was that it had gone from bats to some intermediate animal, and then to humans. (You might remember that China initially said it had no evidence of human-to-human transmission.) First snakes, and then the scaly pangolin—a winsome, endangered anteater, valued in China as meat and medicine—were fingered as likely candidates. The idea that the virus might have come from a laboratory was pushed off to the loony fringes along with the suggestion of intentional biological attack.

So it was surprising, on March 30, to find the estimable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reviving the theory of a lab as the possible original source. Not as a lab creation, and not as a biological weapon, but as an accidental leak of a substance that was being studied.  The story was reported by associate editor Matt Field, a native Chicagoan who covers disruptive technology for the Bulletin.

Field says he wrote the story because it’s important to know how the pandemic started, and because there’s disagreement among scientists about whether an accident at a lab could have launched it. The authors of a piece published in Nature Medicine last month (led by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute), for example, presented a strong case against COVID-19 as a lab creation, and also said they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” Field told me. But, he says, others disagree with the latter conclusion. One of the most outspoken is Professor Richard Ebright of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology. “Ebright thinks that it is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic started as an accidental release from a laboratory such as one of the two in Wuhan that are known to have been studying bat coronaviruses,” Field wrote in a read-it-again sentence in his Bulletin piece.

Field also mentioned an article by Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, who in his own reporting cited a paper by a researcher at South China University of Technology that “concluded that the coronavirus ‘probably’ originated at the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention,” which is only about 280 meters from the seafood market. That paper subsequently disappeared from ResearchGate, an international sharing site for scientists, but can still be found on the Internet

The Bulletin, a nonprofit now housed at the University of Chicago, was founded here in 1945, in response to an incidence of devastatingly disruptive technology: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its goals were to educate the public about nuclear weapons, to make activists of scientists, and to manage the “Pandora’s box of modern science,” Bulletin president Rachel Bronson says. Over the years, issues like climate change and pandemics have joined the threat of nuclear war as concerns: “Whenever there’s a science-based issue that has the potential to bring great benefit or great harm and there’s a need for political action, we’re interested.”   

There’s a risk in writing this kind of piece, Bronson says. “It did get picked up by some right-wing blogs, and we did take some criticism for it. We’re really proud of it, notwithstanding that criticism.” She says it’s important, “in this very polarized environment, that credible places like the Bulletin not shy away from stories,” regardless of who might pick them up. “We’re just trying to keep the pressure on understanding how this virus originated so that we can prevent it from happening again.”

“It’s not like lab accidents never happen,” Field observes: “It’s an issue with laboratories across the world, including the United States.” Ebright, via e-mail, notes that U.S. laboratories alone report more than 200 incidents in which substances with biological weaponry potential are lost or released each year.

 “Lab accidents are common,” Ebright says. And, except for smallpox virus, “there is no international oversight of work with pathogens.”   v

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