Speed Reads

COVID-19 Origins

Lab leaks have happened before, and probably more often than you'd think

As researchers continue to investigate the origins of COVID-19, there has been an increased focus on the lab leak theory, a once-taboo hypothesis gaining credibility in the public and scientific communities that suggests the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from a lab in China.

But as many perhaps wouldn't know, lab leaks have not only happened multiple times before, they've happened relatively recently, as well.

"Nearly every SARS case since the original epidemic has been due to lab leaks — six incidents in three countries, including twice in a single month from a lab in Beijing," writes Dr. Zeynep Tufekci for The New York Times.

In 2007, foot-and-mouth disease, a virus able to "devastate livestock," escaped via drainage pipe leak from a U.K. lab with the "highest biosafety rating," reports Tufekci. And don't think America hasn't made its own mistakes. In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported "11 laboratory-acquired infections across six years," typically in BSL-3 labs, a biosafety rating one step down from the maximum BSL-4. "In each instance," writes Tufekci, exposure was not realized until "lab workers became infected."

To curb potential disasters, scientists have suggested stricter controls, or moving research labs outside "densely populated cities." Some have even mentioned implementing a "stronger risk-benefit analysis" before researching a pathogen that could "inadvertently spark pandemics." 

Whatever the path, Tufekci calls on government officials and scientists to put "public interest before personal ambitions" and acknowledge biomedical research as a powerful, but potentially dangerous tool.

Read more at The New York Times.