The COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis is plausible because accidents happen. I should know


Chen Jimin/China News Service via Getty Images

Allen Rodrigo, University of AucklandAt the conclusion of the G7 summit, leaders called for a fresh and transparent investigation to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic began.

I welcome the renewed interest in the potential “lab-leak” origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It wouldn’t be the first time an infectious pathogen was accidentally released from a research laboratory.

I know from personal experience. Back in 1994, on my first day of a fellowship at Stanford University, I picked up a damp courier parcel at reception and took it back to the lab. My professor put on latex gloves immediately. The parcel contained a vial with an HIV-infected lymph node.

The dry ice used to pack the sample had evaporated, soaking the cardboard. There I was, someone who had not worked with HIV before, with hands damp from handling a box containing live virus.

I didn’t get infected. But the experience left me acutely aware of how easily accidents happen. A 2018 review found 27 cases of laboratory-acquired infections between 1982 and 2016 in the Asia-Pacific region alone. The list of pathogens included everything from the virus that causes dengue fever to the SARS coronavirus.




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The American Biological Safety Association (ABSA) maintains a searchable database of reported laboratory-acquired infections. It documents “leakage from the plastic bag in the negative-pressure transport chamber” and exposure to “droplets when cleaning a spill”, among many other examples.

From a scientific perspective alone, it is important to investigate the lab-leak hypothesis because, if true, we have to tighten safety procedures to prevent future leaks.

Two lab-leak hypotheses

When the virus was first reported from Wuhan almost 18 months ago, people have raised the possibility that it emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where research on SARS coronaviruses was underway.

This lab-leak hypothesis comes in two flavours. First, the virus could have jumped from an animal (or animal tissue) infected with a SARS coronavirus as part of the research. The infected person subsequently infected others in the community.

The transfer of a pathogen from an animal to people is called a zoonotic transmission. This process also occurs outside of laboratories, perhaps when there is close contact with infected animals or they are eaten.

The second hypothesis suggests a purposeful genetic modification of a coronavirus that gave rise to a more infectious and human-transmissible variant, which then leaked into the community. This type of genetic modification is called gain-of-function, because the engineered virus acquires new biological traits.

It is unfortunate these hypotheses have been miscast as somehow equivalent, and often portrayed as alternative to the “natural origins” hypothesis.

When I and other computational biologists think of origins, we think about evolutionary ancestors: a virus’ evolutionary line of descent. If SARS-CoV-2 had evolved without human intervention from an ancestral variant found in one or more hosts, it is quite possible that such a host animal, or a sample from an infected host animal, was the subject of study in a lab.

Through some unfortunate misadventure, it is plausible that someone in that lab became infected.

Why an investigation is important

Arguments for or against these hypotheses are often couched in terms of likelihoods. In February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed four scenarios in its global study of SARS-CoV-2 origins: direct zoonotic transmission, indirect zoonotic transmission through an intermediate host, transmission through cold/food-chain products and accidental laboratory release.

Indirect zoonotic transmission through an intermediate host was deemed “likely to very likely” and accidental lab release “extremely unlikely”. The WHO panel rejected deliberate gain-of-function manipulation because it “has been ruled out by other scientists following analyses of the genome”.

But that wasn’t the last word, because the exact origin of the COVID-19 virus remains a mystery.




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Genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 has shown the virus is related (about 96%) to a strain found in horseshoe bats. Although this seems like a high level of similarity, it implies that SARS-CoV-2 diverged from this strain several decades ago. Therefore, it remains unclear if the spillover was directly to humans or through an intermediate species.

In any case, such evolutionary analysis cannot distinguish between transmission in or outside a laboratory.

The WHO panel considered a lab-acquired infection as extremely unlikely because of the Wuhan laboratories’ strict biosafety protocols. But the ABSA database lists accidental infections happening even in labs with the highest biosafety accreditation, and these include SARS-coronavirus infections.




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In its arguments for and against accidental lab release, the WHO report noted the Wuhan laboratories moved to a new location near the Huanan market in early December 2019, but “reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move”. There is no reason to distrust the WHO panel’s conclusions, but it is nonetheless true that lab relocations present opportunities for error.

The lab-leak hypothesis is at least plausible and it’s therefore important to investigate it. If it were related to the operations of the lab, or its relocation, we need to re-examine safety protocols. For relocations, we may want to require independent monitoring and pre- and post-move quarantine of essential personnel.The Conversation

Allen Rodrigo, Professor and Head, The School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The COVID-19 lab leak theory highlights a glaring lack of global biosecurity regulation


Alexander Gillespie, University of WaikatoThe revived debate over whether COVID-19 could be the result of an accidental release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology may never be adequately resolved. Either way, we risk not seeing the wood for the trees.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in February such a leak was “extremely unlikely”, it later advised more work was needed to rule it out.

But the real problem is not what might have happened in China — it’s that there is no meaningful international legal oversight in the first place.

The United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity puts the onus on individual countries to regulate their own biotech industries. While there are protocols for the safe handling and transfer of living modified organisms, there are still no agreed international standards governing laboratory safety, monitoring and information sharing.

This is concerning, given the long history of disease breaches at both civilian and military research establishments.

Laboratory escapes have included smallpox (1966, 1972 and 1978), H1N1 “swine flu” (1977 but probably a 1950s-era sample), Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis (1995) and at least six outbreaks of SARS (with two distinct events at the same Beijing laboratory in 2004).

In 2014, it was thought up to 75 workers might have been exposed to anthrax after an accident at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, raising real concerns about pathogen safety. The same year, five researchers died while working on West African Ebola in Sierra Leone.

Accidents will happen

Rapid advances in biotechnology and the decentralisation of research industries have only increased the potential risks. Without greater control, it’s feared a new or revived disease could be inadvertently released.

Already, researchers have accidentally created a lethal mouse-pox virus, intentionally developed a synthetic strain of the polio virus, resurrected the virus that caused the 1918 influenza, and recreated an infectious horse-pox virus by ordering DNA fragments online.




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The potential risk from hostile state or terrorist acts in this area is clear, which makes the lack of global oversight all the more alarming.

This is true for even the highest risk “biosafety level 4” laboratories, such as the one in Wuhan. Analysis suggests these facilities can be operated safely, but individual countries and regions such as Europe are setting their own standards. There is also a preparedness gap between wealthy and poor countries.

The risk of bioterrorism

Beyond the WHO’s guidelines, however, there is no universal law, regulation or international oversight mandating even basic requirements, such as external independent inspections. We don’t even know how many level 4 laboratories exist. Officially there are 54, but some probably remain undisclosed for national security reasons.

The exclusion of military establishments from independent oversight compounds the problem. An international convention prohibits the creation, stockpiling and use of bioweapons, but there are only soft commitments to compliance and monitoring. Attempts to create a binding verification protocol have so far failed.




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The UN Security Council, which monitors this regime, has noted a disturbing trend of countries not participating in its voluntary mechanisms and a lack of effective controls.

In any case, many countries lack the capacity to adequately detect disease outbreaks. Those that do have the capacity are often unco-ordinated and ineffective.

The general failure of effective oversight makes the risk of bioterrorism higher than it should be.

Global agreement urgently needed

Whether or not the conclusive truth about Wuhan ever emerges, if the international community is serious about minimising the risk of biotech accidents it could look to the Convention on Nuclear Safety as a model.

This would mean a system for enforcing global standards, independent inspections and support for best scientific practice.




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It would need to cover any location or establishment where there is a significant risk from human activity that could intentionally, accidentally or recklessly cause an outbreak.

All countries would have to become more transparent to accept such a rules-based international order. And while it’s possible, even probable, that China needs to improve its own systems, it is certainly far from alone in that.The Conversation

Alexander Gillespie, Professor of Law, University of Waikato

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Discovery of the cabinet leaker would present bigger problem than the leak


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

What on earth was Julie Bishop thinking when she declared she’d support a “formal investigation” into this week’s damaging cabinet leak?

Bishop was defending herself as the questions swirled about who might be the leaker, saying it wasn’t her. But to have one of the most senior ministers – she’s deputy Liberal leader too – talking about a probe into cabinet members just underlines the serious breakdown not just in the government’s discipline but in its common sense as well.

The leaked story was by the Daily Telegraph’s Sharri Markson, reporting that a “despondent”: cabinet had discussed, in the context of the backbench revolt on banking, whether the government should capitulate and hold a royal commission.

Treasurer Scott Morrison said no; Peter Dutton, one of the conservatives who has had Malcolm Turnbull’s back, was reported to be “opposed in principle” but open to the idea on pragmatic grounds. But Turnbull remains against changing policy and has said this publicly.

For Bishop the affair is a rerun of an old movie. After a leak from the Abbott cabinet, Bishop denied being the source, saying that if the prime minister found the culprit he would “take some action”.

In retrospect, if not always at the time, it seems obvious the 2015 leaks were mostly inspired by those wanting a coup.

This time, the “who” and the “why” aren’t clear. There is no evidence of any organised push against Turnbull, like there was against Abbott, although leadership speculation has become media grist.

The leaks, of which there have been several, may be driven by the general angst around or reflect jostling by various players in uncertain times.

We’ve seen publicly the respective positioning by Morrison and Dutton on the marriage legislation, with Morrison putting himself at the forefront of the “safeguards” brigade and Dutton – on this issues as on others – looking for a compromise way through.

Anyway, there won’t be an investigation. The Australian Federal Police almost never finds the source of leaks to the media, but imagine if it had an unexpected success! That indeed would present a problem.

Bill Shorten described the situation as the government eating itself. Alternatively, think of an army in untidy retreat, sloshing through heavy mud, when it becomes every soldier for himself.

We’re back to the Gillard days or, for those with a sense of history, to the Liberal party of the late 1960s, as it lost its way in the post-Menzies years.

Despite cabinet’s now well-canvassed discussion, the government is still faced with the push from the Nationals’ rebels for parliament to set up a commission of inquiry (only marginally different from a royal commission) into the banks.

Turnbull has tried to minimise the scope for the rebels and Labor to make trouble by cancelling next week’s House of Representatives sitting, but the action just exposed his weakness.

The rebels are unbowed with Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan on Thursday circulating his private senator’s bill for “a commission of inquiry into banking, insurance, superannuation, financial and related services”.

O’Sullivan confirms he is determined. “I’m not someone who blinks”, he said. He dismissed suggestions his absent leader, Barnaby Joyce, was trying to dissuade him. He’d spoken to Joyce early on – Joyce just “asked me to keep him posted”.

It should be remembered the Nationals generally have no problem in cracking down on the banks. In fact, if a proposal for a royal commission were put to the Nationals’ party room, it would likely get up. Nationals assistant minister Keith Pitt was blunt on Thursday: “Clearly the government’s position is not for a royal commission, however we do have a number of members in the Nats who think it’s something that they want”.

Amid the tumult, former prime minister John Howard has used the occasion of Friday’s tenth anniversary of being turfed out of office to buy into the contemporary debates on banking and taxation.

The latter debate was reignited after Turnbull held out the prospect of personal income tax relief in a major address on Monday, albeit devoid of detail. On Thursday Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was dealing with scepticism about its affordability, arguing “we have effectively already assumed future further tax cuts in our budget projections”.

Howard claimed a banking commission would be “rank socialism” – to which O’Sullivan says, “I don’t understand what he means”.

As for tax, Howard, who nearly lost office in his (successful) pursuit of a GST, told Sky it would benefit the government “if it were to embrace very significant further tax reform”. This should include the GST, which couldn’t be left “where it is indefinitely”.

The best of luck with that. Turnbull is tossing tax into the mix to try to show voters he has some sugar in his back pocket to put on their tables. But sweeping reform would see losers as well as winners. For a government perennially behind in the polls, with the slenderest majority before it fell into its current minority position, a major tax overhaul including the GST would take more bravery than presently in sight.

The tenth anniversary of the Howard government’s defeat is also the anniversary of the loss of his own seat of Bennelong. Now the Liberals are again fighting to hold Bennelong, after John Alexander became a victim of the citizenship crisis.

It is too early to get a real sense of how that December 16 byelection will go. On a 9.7 % margin, Alexander has a big buffer, as he faces Labor’s Kristina Keneally.

But this week the Liberal campaign, already looking lack lustre, was snagged by an embarrassing 1990s video of Alexander telling a crude Irish joke and another about “a black guy in Chicago” describing a rape.

Alexander wasn’t the only government byelection candidate who became an embarrassment. There was Joyce’s jaunt from his New England campaign to Canberra for “AgDay”, described as the “brainchild” of his good friend Gina Rinehart, who presented him with a $40,000 cheque, reward for being a “champion of our industry”. He only belatedly declined the money.

The ConversationIt was another example of the poor judgement that infects this government.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/k3zus-7afe23?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.