Get our newsletters
Guest Opinion

Report on Wuhan lab shows importance of biosecurity


Did COVID-19 somehow march out of the lab in Wuhan China in 2019 and infect the world on its way to killing over 20 million people? We’ll never know for sure, but the U.S. Department of Energy now believes(with low confidence) that a laboratory mishap ahead of a natural occurrence is the most likely scenario. That conclusion matches up with findings from the FBI, and also a Senate report that called the pandemic, “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.” It would be far from the first time a dangerous pathogen was inadvertently released from a research laboratory. An abbreviated list of examples include: a smallpox outbreak in 1966 from a medical school in Birmingham, England; Marburg virus outbreak from a lab in West Germany in 1967 and again in a lab in the former Soviet Union in 1990; Ebola from a laboratory in the United Kingdom in 1976; SARS from laboratories in Singapore, Taiwan and China in 2003 — 2012; and Dengue from a lab in Australia in 2011.

Recent revelations suggest that the Wuhan Institute engaged in “gain of function” research on the virus. That should not be surprising, as that’s what biologists do to enhance and strengthen viral species so they can better reproduce and study investigational pathogens. We will probably never know for sure whether SARS CoV-2 originated from the lab in Wuhan, as we would need to compare the lab’s virus samples against the genome of the earliest outbreaks and those samples will likely never be found in China. It appears that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) was constructing mutant SARS-related coronaviruses by blending different types together that could infect human cells. In February 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, then head of the NIH and at least 11 other leading academic virologists convened a conference call to discuss COVID-19 and discussed the possibility that COVID-19 may have leaked from the WIV and may have been intentionally genetically manipulated. The participants also contemplated the possibility that laboratory activities had inadvertently led to the creation and release of the virus. On Jan. 27, a panel of experts at a meeting of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) voted on a set of recommendations on how U.S. health officials should regulate research involving dangerous pathogens in the future. This is a step in the right direction.

Lab leak or not, biosecurity is something we all need to take seriously, as novel coronaviruses and other dangerous viral species are likely to emerge from various natural or laboratory sources in the future.

At the federal level, we should establish clear and consistent infectious disease research guidance and enforcement via a cabinet level office of Pandemic Preparedness.

On a local level, bird owners, wild game hunters and people who have backyard or hobbyist flocks should wash their hands with soap and water after touching birds and report any dead birds to their local wildlife agency. Also, in light of the endemic nature of bird flu and the risk to animals and humans, we should be respectful of neighbors who raise chickens and other fowl by understanding their desire to avoid unnecessary physical contact.

David Segarnick, PhD, is chief medical officer at MedEvoke, an iNIZIO company, and an adjunct assistant professor of pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience at Rutgers/NJ Medical School. He lives in Upper Black Eddy.

Join our readers whose generous donations are making it possible for you to read our news coverage. Help keep local journalism alive and our community strong. Donate today.