The big question: Could the virus that causes COVID-19 have escaped from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan?
Well, I may be in a better position to answer that than most. I have spent more than 60 years in scientific laboratories, teaching and doing research myself, sometimes with dangerous materials.
In other words, I know a lot about lab safety, and that gives me some insights into what is so far the biggest scientific mystery of the 21st Century: Where did that virus come from?
“That virus” is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of COVID-19. This invisible scourge has caused the worst pandemic in a century, with worldwide economic damage threatening to rival that of the Great Depression.
More and more, I suspect that this probably resulted from lapses in the most basic rule for any lab: Keep everyone safe. Laboratory safety means protecting those working inside, and preventing leaks of any potentially hazardous material that could harm those offsite.
Understanding it on a theoretical level, and emphasizing it on a daily basis, as I did in my teaching career, is important. But it does not always ensure that others follow lab safety rules in practice.
There are many examples of how carelessness has injured chemistry lab workers. In every major incident, accidents resulted in increased safety precautions.
The virus's origins may be giving us the first major lesson in how complacency and oversights in genetic engineering labs can affect the outside world. If it indeed spilled out of a lab, this will hopefully be a lesson that leads to new biosecurity and biosafety measures.
What, then, do we now know about COVID-19's origins?
The dogma, until a few weeks ago: It was a natural event. The virus "jumped" from animals to humans courtesy of an animal in that market in Wuhan, China.
Simply put, an animal coronavirus mutated, and naturally developed the ability to infect people.
The market unwittingly brought humans in contact with infected animals. Result: Infected humans, and nothing much anyone could have done about it,
folks. Bad things happen in nature.
That’s what we were told. But oh, how things have changed over the last few weeks! Suddenly, we are taking much more seriously the possibility that scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology created or modified the COVID virus and it accidentally escaped from their lab.
However -- a word of caution: Be careful before assigning blame. Maybe it wasn't the Chinese. Maybe it was some other player.
Remember, Spain got unjustly blamed for the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, which killed more people than any other outbreak of disease in modern history.
Recent estimates range from 50 to 100 million dead.
It took years for scientists to realize that the "Spanish flu" did not originate in Spain. Some even think it originated in Kansas!
One thing, however, is becoming more and more plausible: Someone may have made the virus and, if that is the case, that research may have been supported by organizations outside China. That idea previously was dismissed as crackpot -- to the point that social media like Facebook banned posts claiming that the virus was manufactured.
But times change, and Facebook has lifted that ban. The idea gaining more credence: Scientists at the Wuhan institute genetically engineered a coronavirus to be more infectious and harmful to humans. Lapses in biosafety and biosecurity precautions allowed the new virus to infect lab workers, who then spread it around Wuhan.
That makes some sense; American visitors to the institute had warned of lapses in biosecurity years ago.
This scenario was boosted recently by U.S. intelligence reports that scientists from the Wuhan lab were sick with a disease that seemed to resemble COVID-19 in November, 2019. That's weeks before China acknowledged the disease's outbreak.
This alarming news was enough for President Biden to order an investigation into the virus' origins, with results due by summer’s end.
A finger of blame does seem to be wagging at Wuhan for other reasons as well. Wuhan's scientists were among a handful worldwide doing "gain-of-function" (GOF) research on coronaviruses.
That kind of research aims to make microbes more dangerous to humans, but not out of malice. Done with the proper biosafety and biosecurity precautions, that can reveal details about viruses that protect human health. For instance, it can enable scientists to identify newly emerging viruses that pose a pandemic threat and raise a red flag.
This virus' spike protein has a region that those backing the human-creation idea have termed a "smoking gun." In effect, it's a human fingerprint. Located in the COVID virus are certain amino acids, building blocks of the spike protein that do not exist in any other coronavirus. They make it uniquely infectious and harmful to humans.
But the point in solving where it came from is not to blame and punish. We need to know to prevent any similar new viruses, and other possible reruns of this disaster. That means better lab safety. Such research has been causing biosafety and security concerns for years.
Further improvements and safeguards are badly needed.
Safety regulations should extend to the "biohacking" movement now gaining popularity, regardless of whether COVID-19 turns out to be natural or man-made. Biohacking means hobbyists and "citizen scientists" doing amateur genetic engineering in their home kitchens. Online, anyone can buy genetic engineering kits for creating antibiotic-resistant microbes, genetically engineering frogs, and more.
That’s no joke, folks. But just remember Pandora's Box.
Douglas Neckers, emeritus distinguished research professor, founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences, and former Chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center. See 3dscienceblog.com.
The author is grateful to science writer Michael J. Woods for deeply knowledgeable assistance.
Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash