June 8, 2021


The "Lab Leak": It's Not Enough to Say Accidents Happen (THOMAS LEVENSON, JUN 08, 2021, Nautilus)

That "just asking" gambit has an unsavory history, but assuming this time the questioner is sincere, finding the answer takes some actual reporting into the specific protocols for working in such a lab. By the C.D.C.'s description, BSL-4 facilities are fortresses, with control over entry, air flow, with multiple physical barriers between any lab procedure and the outside world. Every detail matters, down to the requirement that all surfaces have to have smooth finishes to make decontamination easier, and that no cabinets can have sharp edges, to lower the risk of a glove tear.

So, if, as Baker implies, the coronavirus may have leaked from Wuhan's BSL-4 lab, it's not enough to say "lab accidents happen." Of course they do! But to argue for a human error producing global tragedy out of this environment, a responsible reporter needs to be able to show how would this one hypothesized accident have played out: How did this pathogen make its way from a freezer to sealed work area to a moon-suited person and then to the streets of the city? So far no one has come up with any clear account of how a coronavirus escaped BSL-4 barriers. 

There is a twist. The C.D.C.'s own guidelines allow for coronavirus research at lower levels of protection, within BSL-2 and -3 facilities. I believe there's a reason Baker and some others emphasize the existence of the Wuhan max-containment lab: to play off Andromeda-Strain tropes of horror at the prospect of out-of-control scientists doing frightening stuff in scary places--so much so that those who invoke the Wuhan's BSL-4 security forgo the seemingly more powerful argument that COVID-19 could have escaped from a less-secure lab. 

Shifting focus to the actual sites of Wuhan's coronavirus research, though, the same problem is still there. A reporter testing the lab-leak possibility needs to understand in detail what types of work were done in each type of lab, how a level 2 or 3 standard of security works, and then establish a plausible failure mode for the particular protections in place that would allow a dangerous bug to escape.

This is a question of mechanism: How a breach could have occurred in a way that could produce widespread infection. There are other, similarly particular and technically demanding questions to be answered for the lab-accident scenario to gain plausibility, but the issue remains across each of the particular technical hurdles required to get a virus into the Wuhan lab and, perhaps modified, out again to the sorrow of the world.

Doing science is hard; reporting on it is, too. The subjects at the heart of the COVID story--molecular biology, bioengineering, virology, epidemiology, and more--are all difficult subjects, and they're challenging in a different way than, say, physics is daunting. The biological sciences require both a grasp of critical organizing concepts and the mastery of prodigious amounts of specific details within each domain and sub-discipline. 

Such complexity creates a particular problem for journalists, especially those unused to covering detailed science. Sources aren't enough, even those who are experts in their own domain. A bacteriologist may be distinguished and decorated and still miss crucial elements of bleeding-edge virology; a molecular geneticist doesn't necessarily know what happens in the weeds of infection at the cellular level, and so on. 

For now, the core of the lab-leak story still rests on an unfalsifiable negative: It's impossible to say a lab-accident couldn't happen. 

It is no coincidence that those trumpeting a lab leak are the same folks who opposed the measures to limit the pandemic.  It's just blame-shifting with a racial bonus. Note, in particular, what's lacking from their mantra: they don't even pretend that our response to the outbreak should be any different based on whether it was a lab-leak or a cave-leak.  

Posted by at June 8, 2021 12:00 AM