Late last week, National Public Radio interviewed “half-a-dozen scientists familiar with lab accidents and how research on coronaviruses is conducted” and concluded “there is virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as result of a laboratory accident in China or anywhere else.” The NPR report’s conclusion is driven by some useful perspective from veteran virologists but also by a strange omission of several relevant pieces of information and previous accidental releases of viruses.
Probably the best argument in the NPR report is the point that those who are attempting to collect bats for coronavirus study — such as virologist Tian Junhua, who works at the Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control, seen collecting bats in caves in China here — try to minimize the amount of time that they come in contact with live, active viruses:
Even if researchers stumbled across the virus, they would be very unlikely to get infected. When researchers collect samples, they take extraordinary precautions to avoid infecting themselves in the field, says Mazet. Scientists working with wild bats wear N95 respirator masks, Tyvek suits, goggles and gloves. Samples of bat blood, urine, saliva and feces are immediately plunged into nitrogen to freeze them on the spot, Mazet says.
Lowering the odds further still, when researchers begin to work in the lab to see what they’ve collected, the samples they handle aren’t actually infectious. Mazet says they are “inactivated,” a chemical process that breaks apart the virus itself while preserving its genetic material for study.
“We basically deactivate or kill the virus before we work with it to limit the possibility of accidents,” she says. “And then we work inside biosafety cabinets even on top of that.”
Except . . . can we be sure that no researcher at any point made any mistakes with the use of the masks, suits, goggles, gloves, etc.? We’re learning that this virus can be asymptomatic in a significant number of people. How can anyone be certain that no one in the collection or research process inhaled any virus at any point, and became a carrier, and never manifested symptoms?
The assurances about the safe practices of Chinese researchers don’t align with the U.S. State Department’s 2018 assessment that “the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” NPR’s report briefly mentions the State Department assessment in passing, but never attempts to square its conclusions with the quoted virologists’ confidence in the diligence of Chinese researchers.
The NPR report also includes an odd omission in its discussion of previous lab accidents:
In the early 2000s, there were three documented cases of the original SARS virus escaping from a laboratory environment, according to Lim Poh Lian, a senior consultant at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in Singapore. But the circumstances surrounding those escapes were vastly different.
In the case of a 2003 incident in Singapore, a student became infected with SARS after his samples were cross-contaminated with live virus. That virus was being grown in relatively large quantities in the lab for studies on the disease, and the student was not properly trained in safety procedures for the lab he was working in.
Yes, but the other two accidental lab releases of SARS separately occurred at the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing, part of China’s Center for Disease Control, and were blamed on “negligence,” a point that seems germane to the discussion of the likelihood of negligence causing an accident in a state-run laboratory in China.
The NPR report quotes an e-mail from Lim: “While there is always some risk for lab accidents, risk is not reality.” Whatever that is meant to mean, the best scientists in the world have left smallpox in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health building, exposed coworkers to live anthrax on the CDC’s Atlanta campus, and Russia accidentally had an explosion at its laboratory storing smallpox samples. The CDC’s Federal Select Agent Program collected 749 incident reports from select-agent research facilities from 2009 to 2015, and 79 percent of those incidents involved human error. It is unclear why Chinese labs would be immune to the kinds of accidents that befall some of the most respected institutions in the world.
The report contends that the idea of researchers who traveled into the wild to collect bats to research coronaviruses would be unlikely to encounter this particular virus:
That raises the first coincidence that would be needed for SARS-CoV-2 to come out of a laboratory: Scientists would have to find it in nature first. “Most of the viruses [carried by bats] actually probably don’t even have the capacity to infect humans,” says Anthony. So scientists collecting field samples would, in some sense, have to win the lottery to collect a coronavirus that happens to be highly transmissible in humans.
It is unclear why it would be wildly implausible for scientists to catch a bat that had this virus but perfectly plausible for a poacher working for a wet market to do the same.
A lot of the arguments in the NPR segment amount to insisting the staff at these labs are just too well-trained to have an accident like this. Perhaps they are. But recent months have demonstrated that a lot of institutions in China don’t want to report mistakes and bad news up the chain to their bosses. The world has seen Wuhan public health authorities spend at least three weeks insisting the virus could not spread from person to person when doctors in hospitals knew otherwise, and Chinese manufacturers sent at least 10 million defective and unusable tests, masks, and personal protective equipment to other countries. It is hard to believe that any group or institution is simply “too diligent” to allow this kind of accident to occur.
With all of that said, those who are advocates for the lab accident theory need to come to terms with a difficult fact: The evidence of the accident may never be found. If it ever existed, it probably has been destroyed by now. The Chinese government would never confess such a colossally consequential error. This is likely to be a theory supported with only circumstantial evidence for years, perhaps decades.
It is also important to understand that a great many people in powerful positions, both inside and outside of China, are consciously or subconsciously hoping the pandemic cannot be traced back to a lab accident.
If the source of the virus is a wet market or natural exposure — say, a farmer going into a cave to collect guano to use as fertilizer — then the villains of the story are familiar and aligned the status quo. No one likes poachers of exotic animals or endangered species. Experts have warned about the dangers of wet markets for years. While it will be difficult to significantly reduce the use of wet markets, or to tackle the $19 billion-per-year international wildlife trafficking trade, there are very few economic or political elites who openly support pangolin smuggling or dining on bats.
However, there are a lot of economic or political elites who invested a great deal of their credibility on the idea that the Chinese government could be a trustworthy and responsible partner in prosperity, despite regular disagreements with other countries about topics such as human rights, freedom of expression, and trade-rule enforcement.
This virus has, as of this writing, infected more than 3 million people worldwide and killed more than 209,000 people. China’s relationship with the rest of the world has never been more strained. Internal pressures in China have rarely been worse. Around the world, populations are scared, frustrated, newly unemployed, financially ruined, and angry. The revelation that a Chinese lab was the ultimate source of all this misery could set off violent repercussions for the Chinese government, the Chinese people, or Chinese Americans.
We shouldn’t want the trail to lead back to a Wuhan laboratory. But that doesn’t mean we can avert our eyes from anything suggesting it does.