December 2, 2020 - 7:00am

Here at The Post we like to feature new and interesting articles from outside the UnHerd universe. This one, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is not at all new. In fact, it’s six years old — but that is what makes it all the more interesting.

The author is Martin Furmanski, a medical historian, and his subject is “gain of function” experiments on disease-causing micro-organisms:

The ostensible goal of these experiments — in which researchers manipulate already-dangerous pathogens to create or increase communicability among humans — is to develop tools to monitor the natural emergence of pandemic strains. Opponents, however, warn that the risk of laboratory escape of these high-consequence pathogens far outweighs any potential advance.
- Martin Furmanski

While it’s highly unlikely that Covid-19 was deliberately engineered and released as a bio-weapon, it is possible that the current pandemic began as an accidental release from a laboratory experiment gone wrong.

The plausibility (though by no means the certainty) of such a scenario is discussed here. A further reason why we should stay open-minded is that it’s happened before. In his article, Furmanski runs through a number of documented cases in which scientific error is thought to be (or sometimes definitely known to be) responsible for disease outbreaks.

For instance, in 2007 a broken pipe led to an escape of the foot-and-mouth-disease virus from a laboratory in Pirbright, Surrey. Fortunately, the consequent outbreak was small compared to the devastating 2001 epidemic.

Another example from the UK was the smallpox outbreak of 1978. Tragically, a medical photographer working at the University of Birmingham Medical School became the last known person in the world to die from smallpox after the virus escaped from a research lab and made its way into a service duct.

Though such incidents lead to the tightening of safety procedures, Furmanski argues that we should assume that accidents will continue to happen:

Looking at the problem pragmatically, the question is not if such escapes will result in a major civilian outbreak, but rather what the pathogen will be and how such an escape may be contained, if indeed it can be contained at all.
- Martin Furmanski

In other words, we need to think really hard before using our ever-expanding bio-engineering toolkit to “augment virulence and transmissibility of dangerous pathogens”. The purpose of such experiments may be to better understand, and therefore prevent, deadly disease; but, as Furmanski says, this kind of research carries the risk of becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Being written in 2014, the article has nothing to say about Covid-19. Nevertheless, if the virus did have its origin in a lab accident it’s absolutely vital that the truth comes out.

It’s unclear whether knowing the origin would be helpful in our fight against this pandemic. As a wake-up call, though, it might just prevent the next one.