What is the story of laboratory leaks? Dr. T.J Coles examines viruses of the last century to shed light on their origins and spread, vaccine programs and more.
Some 61 million people have reportedly died in recent pandemics: 50 million in the 1918 H1N1 outbreak, up to 4 million in the 1957 A(H2N2) outbreak, another 4 million in the 1968 A(H3N2) outbreak, and a supposed 3 million so far in the COVID pandemic.
Closer examination finds many outbreaks were due to viruses escaping or leaking from laboratories.
A POX ON THEE!
Before the World Health Assembly declared them eradicated in 1980, variants variola major and variola minor caused smallpox, which covered infected persons from head to toe in sores and often caused blindness. Thirty percent of people infected with variola major died.
Between 1949 and 1978, three people died of smallpox in the UK after laboratory outbreaks occurred on four separate occasions, at:
The Liverpool Medical School (1949), the Birmingham Medical School (1966), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (1973), and again at the Birmingham Medical School (1978). Almost nothing is known about the 1949 leak, except that there was apparently a single case and no deaths.
In February 1966, a medical photographer at the Birmingham Medical School became infected with the less deadly variola minor. His fiancée and parents were infected and the smallpox spread as far as Wales, 150 miles away.
By August, 71 cases of the less fatal variant were identified in the English Midlands.
In February 1973 and as part of vaccine research, a lab assistant at the Mycological Reference Laboratory in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine observed variola major (the deadlier strain) and two strains of whitepox infecting egg membranes.
In March, she became infected despite having been vaccinated against smallpox as a child.
Despite its international prestige, “the laboratory was of an old-fashioned design, grossly overcrowded and poorly equipped.”
The assistant was initially misdiagnosed and treated in an open ward at a public hospital. She infected a neighbouring patient, who in turn infected visiting relatives. By the middle of the year, two people had died.
In August 1978, another medical photographer in Birmingham Medical School’s Anatomy Department became infected with smallpox.
Despite having been vaccinated a decade earlier, she was dead within a month.
Her father perished from a heart-attack, possibly triggered by smallpox complications, and the School’s leading virologist, Professor Henry Bedson, apparently committed suicide.
Did you know that the story of smallpox had such involvement with select medical schools?
FOOT & MOUTH
Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) can cause livestock to develop hoof and teeth infections, ending in lameness and death.
In 1970, faulty ventilation at Pirbright’s Animal Virus Research Institute caused FMD to escape and contaminate a nearby holding pen. The outbreak was contained after a dozen animals were destroyed.
The Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York was founded in 1954. Until 1969, it conducted biological weapons research, including the use of insects to spread disease.
Many suspect that the tick-borne Lyme disease, which affects 30,000 Americans each year, resulted from a lab escape.
The US Department of Agriculture also used the facility to study FMD in cattle. FMD broke out on the Island in 1978 but was contained.
“[Department of Homeland Security] officials admit that since 1978 here have been several accidental releases of the virus into cattle in holding pens.”
The UK experienced an FMD outbreak in 2001, resulting in the slaughter of 7 million animals.
A less severe epidemic broke out in August 2007, which occurred just three miles from Pirbright (then called the Institute for Animal Health). It transpired that the Institute was researching FMD vaccines with the private firm, Merial Animal Health, which produced 10,000 litres of the virus.
A government report suggests that faulty drains resulted in contaminated water leaking into nearby fields.
FLU 1977: A VACCINE TRIAL?
The 1918 Flu was labelled H1N1. Minus one major genomic change in 1947, the evolutionary trajectory of the H1N1 virus slowed and stabilised. A subtype circulated, was isolated, and stored by Chinese and/or Soviet virologists in 1950.
The so-called Russian Flu or Red Flu actually appears to have started in Liaoning Province, eastern China, in May 1977. It lasted for a year and killed fewer people than typical influenzas (<5 per 100k compared to 6 per 100k with normal flus). The 1977 outbreak ended around 700,000 lives globally.
The genomic sequence was close to the 1950 expression of the H1N1, not the similar H2N2 or H3N2 strains circulating in Hong Kong at the time. Because 1918 and 1957 flu survivors had H1N1 antibodies, the 1977 virus mainly affected people aged 26 and under.
The World Health Organization reported at the time: “The reappearance of H1N1 virus after its apparent disappearance for 20 years … is an unprecedented event in the history of influenza.”
Virologists Nakajima and the team raised the possibility that while most pointed the finger at nature, H1N1’s reappearance may have come from “elsewhere.”
Virologists Webster and the team write:
“This virus probably escaped from a laboratory and has continued to cocirculate with the H3N2 influenza viruses in the human population.”
International scientists agreed on a biological surveillance regime.
Blaming either Russia or China for the outbreak could have damaged relations between the great powers, so scientists dropped the lab leak theory and focused on latency: that perhaps the viral strain had laid dormant in generations of animals and expressed itself in a new outbreak.
The outbreak likely occurred as a result of a vaccine trial. The strain was found to be temperature-sensitive. Forensic microbiologists Choi and García-Sastre write:
“Temperature sensitivity is a characteristic of live attenuated influenza virus [LAIV] vaccines, which supports the possibility that the 1977 outbreak resulted from a LAIV trial.”
How many other flu-like viruses were likely the result of vaccine trials?
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a coronavirus first detected in Guangdong Province, China, in November 2002. Over 1,500 people in the Province were infected and 57 died.
Amoy Gardens is a private housing estate in Hong Kong. In April 2003, residents became infected with SARS when aerosol particles from contaminated sewers entered their dwellings through the ventilation system. Hundreds sickened and 33 died.
By June, SARS had spread to Beijing, Hebei, Hong Kong, Nei Monggol, Shanxi, and Tianjin. Over 5,300 people were infected and 336 perished.
Efforts to contain what appear to be the natural spread of SARS were hampered by multiple laboratory leaks. Singapore’s National University laboratory was working was SARS isolates without following standard safety procedures.
In August 2003, a virology student contracted SARS from the laboratory and was admitted to a general hospital in September. A Taiwanese research scientist contracted SARS from Singapore in December and, like the Singaporean student, entered a general hospital. Only then did the World Health Organization update its SARS-handling protocols.
In April 2004, a student and postdoctoral researcher contracted SARS from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control’s National Institute of Virology in Beijing. Both fell ill shortly afterwards and the lab was temporarily closed when nine workers and their families tested positive.
HOW MANY OTHER LEAKS?
The above cases raise questions about how many other outbreaks attributed to nature were actually caused by lab leaks, vaccine research, and bioweapon programmes.
In an era where the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives, history can teach us quite a lot.
Dr. T.J. Coles is the author of several books, including — The War on You.
Check out T.J’s Amazon page by clicking here.
View more published content from Coles here.
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