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The Murky History of Lab Leaks

They are almost never fully covered by media and usually shrouded by a fog of disinformation and denial. Could this explain the culture of conspiracy surrounding COVID-19?

By Wendy Orent

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The last death from smallpox happened in a laboratory—or more precisely, above one. In 1978, a year after the last naturally occurring case of smallpox in the world, virologist Henry Bedson of the University of Birmingham was rushing to complete a series of experiments with the deadly virus before the World Health Organization shut his work down, having declined permission for him to continue this research. We don’t know what exactly Bedson was doing with his samples, nor how a 40-year-old medical photographer named Janet Parker, whose office was above his laboratory, managed to contract the disease.

Before she died, Parker passed smallpox to her mother, who, freshly vaccinated, had only a mild case. Her father died soon after of a heart attack. And the last victim of this tragic case was Bedson himself, who, taking responsibility for the infection, slit his own throat.

Despite extensive investigation, Parker’s case remains unexplained in the record. An air duct led directly from part of Bedson’s laboratory to the “telephone room” where Parker spent several hours, and an official investigation proposed that infectious smallpox virions must have, in some way, drifted upwards. Other researchers suggested that Parker herself came down to Bedson’s laboratory, though there is no actual evidence she did so. The initial investigation exonerated the University of Birmingham, despite the weird coincidence that in 1966, another medical photographer at the same institute had also contracted smallpox in a mysterious way—and spread the infection to 72 other people. Fortunately, since a mild form of smallpox was involved that time, no one died. And so many years later, we still don’t fully understand what happened, to Parker or her predecessor.

A veil of secrecy seems to surround virtually all investigations of leaks involving dangerous pathogens. It’s confounding and troubling to realize that before the public learns anything like the truth, investigators and journalists often, if not always, have to tear away veils of obfuscation and sometimes outright duplicity. This duplicity can range from the open lying and stonewalling of the Soviet government to the self-protective, natural desire scientists may have to escape blame and protect themselves and their coworkers from charges of malfeasance. And since so much fog envelops almost every instance in which a germ escapes from a laboratory, it’s not surprising that conspiratorial thinking has become so common. We don’t know whom to trust. When it comes to lab leaks, misinformation and disinformation are standard fare. No wonder the public no longer believes the "official truth."

We don’t even understand how common lab leaks really are, because so many have been swept under the rug or quickly disappeared from media reports. The cases of the smallpox lab accidents in Britain in 1966 and 1978—and another in 1973—are models for how laboratory accident fog works.

For instance, no one knows how the young photographer caught his mild form of smallpox (known as variola minor, or alastrim) in Birmingham in 1966, but the fact that he worked where Janet Parker worked in 1978 at least suggests that a continuing problem existed. Yet because no one died in 1966, officials let that incident go.

More serious, if more limited, was the incident in 1973, when a lab worker at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine contracted smallpox by visiting a lab where the virus was being grown in eggs. She apparently watched it being harvested, contracted the infection, and then inadvertently passed it on to two people she shared a newspaper with while she was in the hospital with “glandular fever.” She survived; they did not. That accident, unless you dig for it, seems to have vanished from historical memory too.

Far more attention was paid to the Parker death. There, the government’s “Shooter Report” (named after its chief investigator, the microbiologist Reginald A. Shooter) found the likely cause was heavy contamination in the vent leading from Bedson’s lab to Parker’s work space. Shooter also examined the questionable safety practices in Bedson’s laboratory. While the report acknowledged that Parker may have visited the corridor where the labs were located, there is no indication she ever entered Bedson’s lab, nor was she on the list of approved visitors or workers, all of whom were vaccinated yearly.

The Shooter Report left little doubt that the virus had traveled up the air duct. But a later report exonerated the University of Birmingham on surprising grounds: the investigator argued that smallpox could be contracted only from face-to-face contact with another person, and not through the air. This is manifestly untrue, as proved by a German outbreak in which one hospital patient spread smallpox to many others throughout the building.

So an initially clear case has been thoroughly muddied: if you read Wikipedia now, you’re told that no one really understands what happened to Janet Parker, since Bedson, having fallen on his sword in a tragically literal way, was dead, the university exonerated, and the case itself vanished into a murky cloud, like those of the earlier two British outbreaks.

We can take this story as paradigmatic for the entire history of lab leaks. They always seem to vanish into an oblivion of indeterminacy or misinformation. Sometimes the obfuscation is politically motivated at the government level; sometimes it stems from a natural desire to protect scientists, institutes, reputations. But the result is the same, in almost every country, in almost every case.

"A technician working in a bioweapons laboratory in the city neglected to replace a filter on an anthrax fermenter."

The Soviet Union specialized in cover-ups, even the cover-ups of natural outbreaks of plague or cholera. In 1971 a bioweapons experiment in which aerosolized smallpox was blown out over the Aral Sea went tragically wrong when a young fisheries expert on a boat contracted the illness and spread it to nine other people. Three died, including two young children. The government claimed that the infections had spread naturally from Afghanistan, where pockets of smallpox infection still smoldered. But there were no intervening cases and the whole explanation seemed disingenuous. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did the Russians admit what had actually happened. And this story, too, has been almost forgotten.

Yet it is one of many. In 1977, a pseudo pandemic, the “Russian flu” as it came to be known, broke out in China and spread across the world. It was a mild flu, as influenza outbreaks go, and seemed to infect, almost exclusively, people under the age of 25. Examination of the strain by Western scientists showed something odd: the strain, of a type known as H1N1, was virtually identical to strains that had circled the world continually since 1918, only to be replaced, in 1957, by a novel influenza strain, H2N2. This meant that the virus had disappeared into a freezer, probably in Russia, which apparently investigated influenza as a potential agent for its biological weapons program. It may have been used in a vaccine experiment in Russia or in China. But the story behind this incident was muddied by the Soviets, who may have shared the strain with the Chinese government as part of vaccine research. We will likely never know what really occurred.

More deadly, if less extensive, was a bioweapons accident in the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979. A technician working in a bioweapons laboratory in the city neglected to replace a filter on an anthrax fermenter that dried anthrax spores used for biological weapons. This caused either a leak or an explosion (reports vary) that sent anthrax spores up into the prevailing winds over Sverdlovsk, resulting in at least 64 deaths. The Soviet government launched a massive cover-up that eventually involved U.S. scientists sent to investigate the outbreak, some of whom were convinced by the Soviets that the anthrax deaths had been caused by “tainted meat.” It took many years for the truth to emerge.

In the fall of 2001, the United States had its own bioweapons brush with anthrax, terrifying at the time, all but forgotten now. A wildly popular book, Germs, by then New York Times reporters Judith Miller, William Broad, and Stephen Engelberg, had just been released. And then, in October, a nation already traumatized by the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks learned that we might be under attack again. A series of strange letters addressed to media and government figures were filled with dried anthrax spores, resulting in 22 infections, of which 5 were fatal. No one, at first, knew the extent of the attack, who had perpetrated it, or where it would end. But the investigation itself exploded rapidly, pointing in several directions, many of them entirely fanciful. Were the spores coated in bentonite, as some experts insisted—a process that characterized biological weapons research in Iraq? Did they contain silicon, which also suggested a sophisticated state operation by a hostile nation? Were they the product of one disgruntled person’s work or an entire enemy biological weapons program?

A long forensic investigation eventually pointed to the United States’ own biodefense industry as the source of the anthrax spores. After investigating and clearing one suspect, a virologist named Steven Hatfill, the long finger of the FBI pointed to another biodefense scientist, Bruce Ivins, who worked in the anthrax laboratory of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Ivins killed himself with an overdose of acetaminophen before he could be charged or tried.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Willman, then of the Los Angeles Times, wrote a book called The Mirage Man, setting out the case for Ivins’s guilt. But Martin Hugh-Jones, a British-born anthrax expert once closely tied to U.S. biodefense, knew Ivins and insists, to this day, that Ivins was innocent and railroaded—and that, in fact, evidence points to other arms of the U.S. biodefense program. Another long-time biodefense expert, Andrew Weber of the Council on Strategic Risks, has a different take: “I was briefed by the FBI on the Ivins investigation and am 100 percent sure he was the perpetrator. The only shocking thing about this is that it took the FBI seven years to come to that conclusion.’

Still other biodefense experts insisted, at least at the time, that the anthrax spores were made and sent from outside the United States altogether. Since Ivins never came to trial, his guilt remains unproven, and the memory of anthrax letters has also dissolved into near oblivion.

"This long history of misinformation means that the public has no reason to believe anything they’re told about laboratory accidents."

The misinformation surrounding laboratory escapes means we may never get to the bottom of any of them. “Clear cases are muddied, and those that seem clear at first become ambiguous and disappear from the record,” says Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University. Denial is common and “the whole matter just rolls off and out of memory,” he says.

This long history of misinformation means that the public has no reason to believe anything they’re told about laboratory accidents, or indeed about anything relating to pandemics and disease, especially surrounding SARS-CoV-2, the novel virus causing the present pandemic of COVID. When nothing is explained, everything is possible. Daniella Lebor, an expert on misinformation for the London communications agency APCO Worldwide, says, “Some people don’t believe anything they’re told because they lack trust in the institutions that weren’t transparent to begin with.”

A case in point: Anthony Fauci’s “noble lie”— as it has famously been called—at the outset of the COVID pandemic, telling people not to buy and wear face masks because, he said, they don’t work. It transpired eventually that Fauci said this to protect the mask supply for health-care workers who had a dire need for them. Reversing that policy and admitting that masks are protective did nothing for people’s trust. No matter how noble Fauci’s intention, “If he knew that was incorrect, it’s disinformation—misleading and intending to mislead,” says Lebor. Eventually the line between truth and falsehood is blurred so much that people are unable to distinguish between conspiracy theories and actual scientific facts.

When we’re told that nothing is a lab leak, anything could be a lab leak, and many people have become convinced that SARS-CoV-2 has its origins in a laboratory: either created by accident or design, or originating as a natural bat virus that infected a lab worker. There’s virtually no evidence the virus came from a lab but plenty of proof that it evolved in the Huanan market in Wuhan, to which many of the early COVID cases were linked. But rational explanations no longer appeal to a public subjected to misinformation for too long.

Conspiracies seem easier and somehow cleaner. “People like easy answers to complex questions,” says King’s University College historian Alison Meek. “The world is random and accidents are scary. Unpacking COVID is convoluted because some people don’t understand how science works. We like answers, we like conclusions, we like it simple” when nothing is. While media, including social media, and the constant sharing of misinformation have magnified the problem, the roots go deeper. Without transparency from institutions and governments, the blurring of facts and falsehoods will go on. If government officials themselves can’t commit to telling the truth about lab leaks, about masks, about science itself, expect to see large numbers of people going down the disinformation rabbit hole with no clear path back out.

An earlier version of this essay was published on March 25, 2022.

December 29, 2022