by UnHerd
Wednesday, 2
December 2020
Seen Elsewhere
07:00

Don’t let an accident create another pandemic

by UnHerd
Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion


  • That the COVID-19 virus originated in the Wuhan laboratory, and was released (almost certainly) by accident, seems by far the most plausible scenario. Yet no”one is officially talking about this – the subject is taboo. There is no longer any discussion of the origins of this virus. This is what’s so frightening. It’s the cover-up and the refusal to examine the real problem, the reckless growth of bio-engineering, that is so sinister. And the Pfitzer vaccine that we’ve rushed to acquire seems from what I understand to be another product of bio-engineering that works by altering our DNA. Billions of doses being prepared, massive profits to be had, and the we the population the subjects of an experiment with unknown consequences. It sounds like the plot of a dystopian science fiction novel, which may be why so few seem willing to take it seriously.

  • Of course the media have zero interest in investigating the origins of COVID-19 because doing so completely undermines the argument for globalization. The idea that this is a natural outbreak of disease (thousands of kilometers away from it’s biological carrier and right next door to a bio-weapons lab) is absurd. Western elites have sold off our economies, patrimony and culture and have been rewarded with mass death and economic ruin.

  • The public has been rewarded that. The “elite” have just gotten more wealthy, powerful, and corrupt

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