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Investigative reporter with experience covering lab leaks, bio-safety hazards warns against dismissing theory that COVID-19 leaked from Wuhan lab

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Urges precautions

Photo by DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP via Getty Images

Investigative reporter Allison Young says that theories that COVID-19 may have emerged through a leak at a Wuhan lab should not be discounted.

What are the details?

In a lengthy USA Today editorial, Young said that while some WHO members say that a COVID-19 outbreak stemming from a Wuhan, China, lab accident is "extremely unlikely," she disagrees.

Young, who has investigated many "shocking" dangerous leaks that have occurred over the last decade alone, noted that she "can't stop thinking of the hundreds of lab accidents that are secretly occurring in just the United States."

"I have uncovered exotic and deadly bacteria that have hitched rides out of high-security labs on workers' dirty clothing, silently spreading contagion for weeks," she wrote. "I have revealed how spacesuit-like protective gear and tubes carrying safe oxygen to scientists have torn or broken — repeatedly — and high-tech safety systems have failed dramatically. Vials of viruses and bacteria have gone missing. Researchers bitten by infected lab animals have been allowed to move about in public — rather than being quarantined — while waiting for signs of infection to appear."

Young said that similar lapses in security or care take place all across the country — and there's no reason to believe that they aren't taking place the world over.

"The notion that more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide — so far — could be the result of a lab accident has been met with skepticism and derision by many journalists and scientists who often portray it as a crackpot conspiracy theory fueled by former President Donald Trump's China-bashing rhetoric," Young added. "Without question, the lab-leak theory has been politically and racially weaponized in ugly ways. But that rhetoric needs to be separated from legitimate questions about lab safety that are deserving of investigation."

Lab accidents, Young added, are not rare at all, despite the WHO's assertion otherwise.

"What's rare," she continued, "are accidents causing documented outbreaks. But those have happened, including in 2004 when two researchers at a lab in Beijing unknowingly became infected with another type of SARS coronavirus, sparking a small outbreak that killed one person."

"The risk that a laboratory released virus — carried into the community by a worker who didn't know they were infected or through the leak of infectious waste — could cause a deadly outbreak has been a growing concern for many years," Young added.

She also warned that such a happening would cause ripples across the world.

"If the COVID-19 pandemic were found to have been caused by a lab accident, it would have far-reaching implications for the fragmented and secretive oversight of biological research in the U.S. and worldwide that currently relies heavily on the scientific community to police itself," Young noted.

What else?

Young also explained that while Wuhan labs may not have played any role in COVID-19's origin story whatsoever, it is imperative to determine the source of the virus' emergence.

"No matter what," she cautioned, "this is a moment for the U.S. and the world to take a hard look at the safety of biological research labs and the risks they can pose — because problems at these facilities are real."

Young said that concerning accidents "continue to happen" across the country, but the public doesn't often hear about the disturbing events because "pervasive secrecy obscures failings by labs and also by regulators."

"There is no universal, mandatory requirement for reporting lab accidents or lab-associated infections with dangerous pathogens, our USA TODAY investigation found," she noted. "And even when labs lose their permits to work with dangerous pathogens because of serious safety violations, the government keeps the labs' names secret, citing security concerns and a federal bioterrorism law."

Young pointed to documents she recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, which revealed that laboratories in the United States "reported more than 450 accidents during 2015 through 2019 while experimenting with some of the world's most dangerous pathogens."

Such pathogens, Young revealed, included anthrax, Ebola, plague, and more.

"In nearly all reported cases, regulators deemed the breaches serious enough to put workers at risk of becoming infected," she wrote. "As a result, more than 660 U.S. scientists and other lab workers involved in the incidents underwent medical assessment or treatment with preventative medications."

Diplomats previously warned the United States about the potential for a dangerous coronavirus outbreak three years ago following "risky" Wuhan experiments. The U.S. reportedly ignored the warnings at the time.

Cable warnings, according to the report, "were designed to alert the U.S. government of 'a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.'"

"We were trying to warn that the lab was a serious danger," one of the cable writers said. "I have to admit, I thought it would be maybe a SARS-like outbreak again. If I knew it would turn out to be the greatest pandemic in human history, I would have made a bigger stink about it."

A dangerous example

In the editorial, Young also highlighted a 2014 incident that could have ended far worse than it did.

From Young's piece:

On a warm summer evening in July 2014, a laboratory worker on the National Institutes of Health's sprawling campus just north of Washington, D.C., exited Building 29A toting a cardboard box. Its contents rattled inside – an assortment of fragile glass vials labeled with faded typewriter script: Q fever, rickettsia, and worst of all, four strains of variola – the dreaded virus that causes smallpox.

Highly contagious, variola is one of the deadliest viruses the world has ever known. It could rip through most of the U.S. population and cause a global health disaster if released. It killed as many as three out of every 10 people infected before it was declared eradicated from the planet in 1980.

Nobody has been routinely vaccinated against smallpox in decades, leaving most people in the U.S. and around the world vulnerable to infection. Yet after forgotten specimen vials dating to the 1940s and 1950s were discovered at the NIH in an unlocked cold storage room, nothing was done to ensure their safe transportation. They were allowed to bump around in a cardboard box with dozens of other old biological specimens as a lone laboratory worker walked them to another building about two blocks away, federal records show.

One vial had already shattered.

The world got lucky that day, as it often has when safety breaches occur at biological laboratories in the United States and around the world.

A deadly epidemic wasn't unleashed. It was only a tissue specimen that broke and nobody got sick.

“Had any of the six glass vials containing the Variola virus been breached, there would have been nothing to contain the agent and prevent its release to the surrounding environment," according to a joint investigation report by the FBI and federal lab regulators.

'All of us have a stake in knowing'

Young noted, "We may never know whether the COVID-19 pandemic started in one of Wuhan's laboratories."

"But what is known is that as the number of these kinds of high-security labs grows worldwide and more researchers are storing and experimenting with dangerous pathogens, so too does the risk of laboratory accidents causing outbreaks.

"That's why all of us have a stake in knowing what is happening in these labs here in the United States and around the world," she concluded.

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