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Scientists Debunk Lab Accident Theory Of Pandemic Emergence


From the beginning of the coronavirus, scientists worldwide agree that the virus occurred naturally - that it made its way from animal to a human like SARS and MERS did. But the Trump administration has been raising the possibility that a lab accident in China could be behind the start of the coronavirus. To explain all of this, we're joined now by NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Hey, Geoff.


CHANG: All right, so how did this idea that all of this started in some lab - how did that even gain traction in the first place?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, there is what I call circumstantial evidence. There's a famous lab in Wuhan that studies coronaviruses from bats, and bats are likely to be the source of this virus. The U.S. State Department apparently raised some concern about that lab a few years ago, and intelligence agencies are looking into it. But here's the thing. Nobody, at least publicly, seems to have looked closely at how this work is actually done. So myself and my colleague, Emily Kwong, have been interviewing as many scientists as we can find who do this for a living, and it's looking like this theory is kind of on thin ice.

CHANG: Oh, really; why is that? What makes a lab accident a really unlikely theory?

BRUMFIEL: OK, so the first thing to know is that there are a lot of coronaviruses in bats - maybe many thousands, researchers think. Most of them don't make people sick, but nevertheless, scientists are very careful when they go to collect samples. I spoke to Jonna Mazet, a UC Davis professor who leads a global project on emerging diseases. And here's how she described it.

JONNA MAZET: We wear boots, Tyvek, N95 masks, eye protection, covered heads...

BRUMFIEL: So they're all suited and booted, and they swab these bats. And then they immediately plunge those samples into liquid nitrogen, freezing the virus. So out in the field, they're being super-careful.

CHANG: OK, so they're being super-careful out in the field. But then when they go back to the lab, are they still being super-careful?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, they are. That's the short answer.

CHANG: OK (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Here's the thing. Back in the lab, they actually work with dead virus. They actually inactivate the virus. They kill it and just study its genetic code. And even then, they do that under a biocontainment hood, wearing masks and gloves. They do keep a tiny live sample, but that's kept on ice, and it's almost never taken out of the fridge. And when it is, a lot of times, they can't even get the virus they're looking for to grow, so it doesn't work.

CHANG: OK, so I get how an accident sounds super unlikely, but do we even know if the lab in Wuhan followed these protocols that you're describing right now?

BRUMFIEL: Actually, we do. Until all this went down, that lab was working really closely with U.S. researchers. We know this is how they work. Now, of course, this doesn't completely prove there wasn't an accident. But when you put it all together, the scientists I spoke to say think of it this way. You've got a car wreck 50 feet from a telephone pole. The fender is wrapped around the pole, and you're investigating whether the car was struck by lightning.

CHANG: OK, so what represents the telephone pole in this scenario?

BRUMFIEL: So that's all the other people who interact with bats. I spoke to Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a group that focuses on this kind of work. And he says his team have been in caves when, like, a tour comes through.

PETER DASZAK: We might be there with our hazmat suits on, and tourists will be filing past in their shorts and T-shirt, which is quite bizarre and ironic.

CHANG: (Laughter) OK.

BRUMFIEL: And such as tourists, locals do it too. A province in China - there was a small survey that found nearly 3% of the population had coronavirus antibodies, so a natural crossover really looks most likely here.

CHANG: So interesting. That is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Thanks so much, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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