For most of the past three years, I have been persuaded by the scientists and epidemiologists who said the assertion that the COVID-19 pandemic was the result of an accident at the Wuhan Virology Institute was just a conspiracy theory. But in the past year, questions have arisen that suggest scientists may have been too quick to dismiss the idea.
That’s why I found investigative journalist Alison Young’s new book “Pandora’s Gamble” an interesting read for health journalists. In the book, Young recounts the long history of accidents and leaks at pathogen research laboratories, which she backs up with years of in-depth reporting.
The book also provides a roadmap for how journalists in communities with labs that conduct pathogen research can keep tabs on accidents. Many times, communities aren’t aware there had been an accident for weeks, months or years later.
The history Young’s book documents is disconcerting, recounting hundreds of lab leaks and accidents recorded at labs where high-risk research is ongoing, some with pathogens of pandemic potential. These include accidents at Fort Detrick, the University of Wisconsin Influenza Research Institute, and a University of North Carolina lab. (The University of Wisconsin took issue with Young’s reporting.)
To be clear, the origin theory of COVID-19 remains a subject of debate.
The prevailing scientific theory, based on genetic evidence, is that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, emerged through a natural “spillover” event from an animal or animals that were for sale at the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Market. The most substantial piece of evidence is from genetic testing of stalls at the market and a cluster of early COVID-19 cases linked to the market.
However, Wuhan authorities shut down and cleaned the market before a thorough forensic investigation was initiated, and Chinese authorities haven’t cooperated with global health expert requests for a deeper inquiry into the origin of the virus. In addition, some researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were conducting “gain-of-function” research (meaning it was experimenting with pathogens in a way that could make them more dangerous) on coronaviruses. Wuhan Institute scientists deny there was a lab leak and that no virus with the exact genomic code of SARS-CoV-2 existed in their lab.
“The origin of COVID-19 is an ongoing scientific debate,” writes Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist and senior scientific consultant at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Scientific consensus has not settled. We can all agree that the Wuhan market was an amplification event (i.e. super spreader), but I don’t think we will ever know how it got there because we’ve missed the window of opportunity for critical data.”
And history suggests there is a possibility that there could have been an accident at the Wuhan Institute.
“Some of the world’s elite scientists have seen a lab accident as a very real and horrifying possibility,” Young writes in her book. “They know what the public doesn’t. Lab accidents happen with shocking frequency. Even at the world’s best-run labs.”
To learn more about Young’s reporting and why the lab leak should be treated seriously, join me this coming Thursday at 2 p.m. ET for a free webinar with Young, who will talk about her book.
For more resources on covering this topic, check out this tip sheet.