An astonishing claim about the coronavirus 'lab leak theory' doesn't hold up to scrutiny
Zeynep Tufekci is attracting attention for her op-ed in the Times arguing that covid might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Tufekci is a sociologist who made her name as a covid pundit for her early, evidence-based advocacy of masks. She has carved out a reputation for well-informed and carefully reasoned opinions on pandemic-related matters. This piece is not up to her usual standards, though.
The depressing truth is that covid probably arose from RNA-swapping between species of SARS-like coronaviruses carried by southeast Asian horseshoe bats. The last two deadly human coronavirus outbreaks, SARS and MERS, were naturally-occurring viruses that originated in bats and spread to humans via intermediate species, and experts predicted that it was only a matter of time before nature brewed up an even more transmissible version of SARS. Emerging infectious disease is a paradigmatically natural phenomenon that has afflicted humanity throughout history, despite the xenophobic conspiracy theories that accompany every unexplained outbreak.
As far as we know, every pandemic in history started without the help of a lab, except one. It's with this 1977 flu pandemic that Zeynep Tufekci begins her narrative, noting that the so-called "Russian flu" probably started with an ill-fated attempt to vaccinate troops against H1N1 influenza using a heat-attenuated live virus. This was no genetically-engineered chimera. What gave the game away was it was almost identical to a natural flu from 1950. The two strains were so similar, the only logical explanation was that the virus had been kept on ice for 27 years. The historical evidence and the virus's attenuation suggest that this wasn't even a lab leak. It was just a badly made vaccine for a natural pathogen that became a pandemic, because it had been out of circulation so long that nobody under the age of 30 had ever encountered it.
Tufekci goes on to make an astonishing claim. Sure, pandemics long predate laboratories. But that, in Tufekci's opinion, is what makes the comparison unfair:
"A better period of comparison is the time since the advent of molecular biology, when it became more likely for scientists to cause outbreaks. The 1977 pandemic was tied to research activities, while the other two pandemics that have occurred since then, AIDS and the H1N1 swine flu of 2009, were not."
Zeynep Tufekci seems to be trying to convince us that a third of all pre-covid pandemics in the era of molecular biology were "tied to research activities." This claim is blatantly, laughably false. For starters, the classical era of molecular biology began in 1953 when Watson and Crick unveiled the DNA molecule's double helix, if not earlier.
If we accept Tufekci's premise, that we should look only at the pandemics of the molecular biological era, we must fault her for leaving out the natural 1957 flu that killed 1.1 million people worldwide, and the natural flu pandemic of 1968 that killed another million. The definition of "pandemic" is somewhat contentious, but the flus of 1957 and 1968 are textbook pandemics in terms of their global scope and lethality. Nor does Tufekci include the original SARS, which many sources characterize as a pandemic on account of it spreading to 29 countries. It was only contained thanks to heroic human interventions. Some even count MERS as a global pandemic.
Restricting our horizon to the age of molecular biology is itself a dodgy move because people have been doing risky research with pandemic-generating organisms for well over a century. Better to consider the entire history of microbiology. I suppose that it's possible that neither Tufekci nor her editor at the Times knows the difference between microbiology and molecular biology, but let's just hope that's not the case.
French bacteriologist Louis Pasteur reported in 1881 that he could dial the virulence of pathogens up or down by serial passage. He even passed the rabies virus through a series of live dogs to create a vaccine. Spanish physician Jaime Ferrán inoculated 50,000 people in the city of Valencia with a live attenuated cholera vaccine of his own creation in 1885. Opinion was divided on whether Ferrán was a genius or a quack, but that only reinforces my point—humans have been doing questionable stuff with potential pandemic pathogens for a long time. Again, all pandemics except the 1977 flu have occurred naturally. It's not that human activity is innocuous. It's that everything scientists do pales compares to the billions of animals and humans swapping viruses.
Lab accidents happen. Outbreaks linked to labs have been happening throughout the history of microbiological research, but they tend to be relatively small and limited to researchers, their close contacts and the odd health care provider. Which is not surprising considering that, for all their faults, labs are designed to keep people safe from infectious disease within a larger world that offers no such assurances. Lab-based infections account for a tiny percentage of all infectious disease.
Tufekci specifically framed this as a discussion of the origins of pandemics, rather than infections, or outbreaks. Lab-based infections would look even rarer if we compared them to all infections, or all outbreaks, or to all known outbreaks of new diseases.
Whatever the flaws of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it was surely more secure than countless roosts where bats are swapping SARS-like coronaviruses in innumerable uncontrolled serial passage experiments, all day, every day, with no biosafety protocols. We can debate about whether Biosafety Level 2 lab is secure enough for altered bat coronavirus research, but the fact remains that the corresponding Bat Safety Level=0.
Zeynep Tufekci is right in that we can't rule out the possibility that covid came from a lab a priori, but she's attacking a straw man. Nobody thinks the possibility can be discounted out of hand. Everyone thinks there ought to be continued investigation. But we don't need to pretend all possibilities are equally likely to justify it.
It's comforting to think that the risk of emerging infectious disease can be pinned on a few arrogant scientists. It's far more terrifying to acknowledge that the bats—and all the factors that make spillovers more likely—are all still out there, waiting for us.
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