There were curious characteristics about the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1977-78, which emerged from northeastern Asia and killed an estimated 700,000 people around the world. For one, it almost exclusively affected people in their mid-20s or younger. Scientists discovered another oddity that could explain the first: It was virtually identical to a strain that circulated in the 1950s. People born before that had immunity that protected them, and younger people didn’t.
But how on earth had it remained so steady genetically, since viruses continually mutate? Scientists guessed that it had been frozen in a lab. It was often found to be sensitive to temperature, something expected for viruses used in vaccine research.
It was only in 2004 that a prominent virologist, Peter Palese, wrote that Chi-Ming Chu, a respected virologist and a former member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told him that “the introduction of this 1977 H1N1 virus” was indeed thought to be due to vaccine trials involving “the challenge of several thousand military recruits with live H1N1 virus.”
For the first time, science itself seemed to have caused a pandemic while trying to prepare for it.
Now, for the second time in 50 years, there are questions about whether we are dealing with a pandemic caused by scientific research.
While the Chinese government’s obstruction may keep us from knowing for sure whether the virus, SARS-CoV-2, came from the wild directly or through a lab in Wuhan or if genetic experimentation was involved, what we know already is troubling.
Years of research on the dangers of coronaviruses, and the broader history of lab accidents and errors around the world, provided scientists with plenty of reasons to proceed with caution as they investigated this class of pathogens. But troubling safety practices persisted.
Worse, researchers’ success at uncovering new threats did not always translate into preparedness.
Even if the coronavirus jumped from animal to human without the involvement of research activities, the groundwork for a potential disaster had been laid for years, and learning its lessons is essential to preventing others.