Workers at Fort Derrick, Maryland, which was forced to shut last summer after it failed inspection standards ©Greg Mathieson Sr/Shutterstock

Covid-19 didn’t escape from a lab—but the next deadly virus could

Sars vials misplaced, dengue fever samples lost in the post—the chilling lack of bio-security at research labs
June 9, 2020

At the end of last year, I was asked to write in Prospect about the biggest global challenges in the coming decade. There was no question in my mind about what I would write about: pandemics and “the medical response to global pandemic—which is pitiful,” I said in an email to the editor. “And we are going to find that out soon (I fear).” My article, published in early December, said that “we live in the age of the pandemic,” and warned that the lack of international co-ordination and preparation could make a dangerous outbreak even worse.

I couldn’t have known how soon and how devastatingly this warning would be borne out. But as a historian, I had learned that pandemics were something to worry about. I had been thinking about the subject for a while, and talked about it at length when I was asked into several government ministries to discuss post-Brexit Britain in December and early January.

The past has often shown how a deadly disease can take hold after a pathogen leaps between species, but multiple factors need to lock into place for it to spread effectively, and reach pandemic proportions. Globalisation ramps up the risks. In particular, the same travel and transportation that allows for more exchange, movement and transmission of goods and people than ever before in history, also provides more vectors than ever for the spread of infections. These could expose the fragility of interlocking economies with potentially devastating effects. The way that this coronavirus has done just that is astonishing: almost half of the world’s labour force have either lost their jobs, or else seen much or all of their income vanish.

There is, however, a worse nightmare to consider than natural pestilence being amplified by globalisation. Many countries around the world conduct research into emerging infectious diseases and into potentially dangerous biological threats. What would happen if something went badly wrong in one of their laboratories?

“Yes I have,” said President Trump at the end of April, when asked if he had seen evidence that the Covid-19 virus ravaging the world had originated in a lab in China. Asked what he had been told, he replied: “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

At the end of May, the pandemic had claimed 100,000 American lives, and infections were racing towards two million. Several weeks earlier, a leaked report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had shone a light on the unfolding disaster, and questions about the administration’s competence were being asked. The president was keen to find a scapegoat and use it as much as he could.

“Everything about the virus's stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that it evolved in nature and then jumped species”

With an economy in freefall and an election to fight in a matter of months, pointing the finger of blame at America’s rival, China, and encouraging talk of compensation (“we haven’t decided the final amount yet,” Trump said) was an obvious way to deflect attention. All the more so because of the chronic mistakes China made in the first phase of the virus’s detection that enabled it to spread in Hubei province, in the rest of the country and around the globe. And in a deeply connected digital world, whipping up fake news and conspiracies often pays dividends. The fact that a substantial part of the global population is still under some form of lockdown creates captive audiences ready to pore over, accuse and tweet fringe views that propagate just like a virus does.

But those who know what they are talking about have been emphatic that Covid-19 is extremely unlikely to have started with a laboratory mishap. A paper published in Nature in March demonstrated that “the genetic data irrefutably shows that the virus is not derived from any previously used virus backbone,” and therefore has occurred in the wild, probably “by natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer, or natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.”

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As Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, put it in an interview with National Geographic at the start of May: the evidence “is very, very strongly leaning toward [the conclusion that the virus] could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated.” The best evolutionary biologists who had worked on the virus, he added, “have said that everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that it evolved in nature and then jumped species.”

Asked if perhaps the virus had first occurred naturally, then been brought to a lab to study and escaped, Fauci was dismissive. If that was the case, he said, then we are back to square one and there is no need to blame a laboratory release in the first place: “that means it was in the wild to begin with. That’s why I don’t get what they’re talking about.”

But just because Donald Trump says something false, it doesn’t follow that it couldn’t be true. While the development of biological weapons is prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention that entered into force in 1975 and to which almost every country on earth is a signatory (those who have not ratified or signed include Chad, Israel, Namibia and Tuvalu), research into them for purposes of “defence” is found across much of the world. Some of the most sensitive work is done in military facilities, with the aim not only of better understanding threats but to enable lines of defence to be prepared in the event of a deliberate or accidental release. The mandate of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, for example, is to “protect the war fighter from biological threats.”

A man wearing a protective mask walks next to a poster of Institut Pasteur with words: "Human health at the heart of our actions" (Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images) A man wearing a protective mask walks next to a poster of Institut Pasteur with words: "Human health at the heart of our actions" (Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

A man wearing a protective mask walks next to a poster of Institut Pasteur with words: "Human health at the heart of our actions" (© Stephane Cardinale Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Security at such installations is, not surprisingly, extremely high, as are the sensitivities about their research programmes. There is inevitably a grey zone where the boundaries are blurred between prevention and development of threats that are potentially viable as offensive tools. As a result, it would be reasonable to assume that the chances of an accidental release from such a facility are minimal. They are not.

“These are not the first times that we’ve had a world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab,” tweeted Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 3rd May. And, about the past at least, he was right. In 2004, safety procedures at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing were breached on at least two occasions, resulting in a fresh outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars)—the original wave had struck in 2002—that infected nine and killed one.

The response, on that occasion, involved taking measures to contain the spread of the disease: lockdown of those who might come into contact with people who had been infected; social isolation; and contact tracing, including in Anhui province where the index patient (the first infected) travelled to visit family.

These measures were enough to stop the outbreak spreading further. They were investigated at the time by the World Health Organisation, which looked into how the virus had been let out and why there had been a delay of a month between the date of first infection and the announcement of the index case. The aim was to learn lessons that would stop another, potentially worse, accident taking place in the future.

In January 2018, US officials reported concerns that suggested that these lessons had not been fully noted. On a visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the first in China to achieve the top level for international bioresearch safety, high-ranking US visitors remarked in a cable to Washington on “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” This meant there was a chance of an accidental release of a virus, and an ensuing threat to public health.

“In one British lab it was found there had been 40 mishaps within two years, including live dengue virus being sent through the post”

These lax safety standards do not seem to have played a role in this crisis. However, it is revealing that Shi Zhengli, one of the lead researchers into bats and emerging infectious disease in Wuhan, was reported to have breathed a sigh of relief when tests on the genetic material of Covid-19 did not show a match between the sequence of the virus and those that she and her team had been sampling. “That really took a load off my mind,” she said. “I had not slept a wink for days.” It did not come from the lab—but it might have.

This flirtation with catastrophe is not unique to China. Just as zoonotic transfers (or species leaps) can happen in any part of the world, so too are breaches of protocols a regular occurrence. So regular, in fact, that they are accidents waiting to happen. One could even say it was miraculous that we have not already been through a global pandemic as a result.

In September last year, for example, there was an explosion at the Russian State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, just outside Novosibirsk in south-western Siberia. The “Vektor” facility is not only Russia’s leading centre for research into biological warfare, but also one of only two places in the world that stores the deadly smallpox virus that killed hundreds of millions of people over many centuries, until it was finally eradicated in the 1970s.

The cause of the explosion, according to a statement on Vektor’s homepage, was a gas canister that blew up during repair works to a sanitary inspection room. No biohazardous materials were released, continued the statement, although it was reported that fire spread through the building’s ventilation system.

A close shave—but it is worth reflecting on breaches nearer to home. In the UK, there are multiple labs that handle viruses and bacteria. Between June 2015 and July 2017 there were 40 mishaps, including live dengue virus being sent through the post and live meningitis-causing germs being handled by students by mistake. Although the Health and Safety Executive stated that “the sector has a good health and safety record, with a high level of control of the most hazardous organisms,” the fact that accidents, mishaps and breaches took place on average once every 20 days says otherwise.

And then there is the US itself. What Mike Pompeo did not say is that the US military’s own principal biological warfare laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland was forced to shut down last summer after being served with a “letter of concern” and then a “cease and desist” order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) following routine inspections in June. Although little information was given at the time, other than that “deficiencies” had been discovered, an inspection report revealed a failure by the army laboratory to “implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain select agents or toxins,” that staff failed to implement biosafety and containment protocols and a new chemical decontamination system leaked because of mechanical failures.

The lab, which was authorised to handle agents such as Ebola, plague and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, had its licence revoked and its staff ordered to re-train. It was also told to address the problems that had been identified during the inspections. Although the Fort Detrick lab was allowed to partially re-open towards the end of 2019, its scientists were only cleared to re-commence activities on a “full scope of research on infectious diseases” on 23rd March this year.

Then there is France, where the prestigious Institut Pasteur in Paris signed a co-operation agreement in 2017 with (you guessed it) the Wuhan Institute of Virology to do research into infectious, tropical and neglected diseases. The French institute had been forced to account for shortcomings in its operations in 2014, when it was accused of not being able to provide lists of personnel with relevant authorisation, of not having freezers secured, of being unable to provide video footage, and of not responding to requests for information from the authorities for two months.

More of a concern than these breaches, however, was that 2,349 vials of samples of the deadly Sars virus had gone missing in 2014. They had probably been destroyed said the Institute’s Director General, Christian Bréchot. And even if they had not, he went on, the freezer in which they were being stored had broken down a few days’ earlier, which would have likely rendered them harmless. There was “zero” chance of a risk to public health, concluded the institute’s own investigation.

Humans have always lived in fear of communicable diseases: they have been the dominant predator in history. Even before Covid-19, such diseases were responsible for almost 60 per cent of all deaths in Africa. It is both reasonable and important that the finest scientific minds around the world should be researching such diseases and working out how best to neutralise and eliminate them.

But we all know that to err is human—and that accidents happen. They certainly do not have to happen in laboratories to pose a threat. They can take place in wet markets. Or in plague foci that become more active because of changing climate patterns. We should have no illusions that we continue to skate on thin ice, as we have done throughout human history. And that will not end if—or rather when—the natural disaster of Covid-19 is defeated in the laboratories of the world. For the next pandemic might well begin in them.

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Illustration by ILLOSAUSAGE