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As world debates Covid origin, here is a list of viruses that leaked from labs in past

SARS 1, H1N1 influenza virus and smallpox are some of the viruses that have escaped from laboratories in the past.

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New Delhi: The origin of SARS-CoV-2 has been debated and discussed by scientists across the world. And the one origin theory that keeps cropping up is the possibility that it leaked from a lab in China’s Wuhan.

There have been several calls for a more rigorous probe into whether the Covid-19 virus escaped from a laboratory.

While it remains to be definitively ascertained whether this theory is true, there have been several viral leaks from laboratories in the past.

Chris Said, a data scientist, posted a thread on Twitter Monday, listing the various viral lab leaks throughout history.

According to Said, SARS 1 or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003 that had spread to 29 countries, escaped from Asian labs.

The first time a SARS 1 escaped from a virology lab was from Singapore in August 2003 in the National University of Singapore, while the second one happened in the same year in the month of December in Taiwan. The investigation revealed that a SARS research scientist in Taiwan had handled leaking biohazard waste without gloves, a mask, or a gown. In April 2004, the virus escaped from the Chinese National Institute of Virology.

Similarly, the H1N1 influenza virus, which first appeared in 1918 as a global pandemic, and reappeared in 1977 probably escaped a lab. It was found that the virus may have escaped from a lab attempting to prepare an attenuated H1N1 vaccine in response to the US swine flu pandemic alert.

On the H1N1 leak, Martin Furmanski, a researcher of the Scientist’s Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons, wrote in his 2014 paper that the authorities did not want to publicise the lab origin of the virus.

“Virologists and public health officials with the appropriate sophistication were quickly aware that a laboratory release was the most likely origin, but they were content not to publicize this, aware that such embarrassing allegations would likely end the then-nascent cooperation of Russian and Chinese virologists, which was vital to worldwide influenza surveillance.”

Another virus that leaked from laboratories is the smallpox. The virus had leaked from two different accredited smallpox laboratories in the UK. The first was in 1972 from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the second was in 1978 from Birmingham Medical School, from where the 1966 smallpox outbreak had also leaked.

The foot and mouth disease appeared in the UK in 2007, about 4 km from a biosafety level 4 laboratory in Pirbright. The investigations into the disease revealed that construction vehicles had carried mud contaminated with FMD from a defective wastewater line at Pirbright.

Also read: Before Covid officially hit, 3 at Wuhan lab were hospitalised in Nov 2019, says WSJ report

Origin of SARS-CoV-2 

Meanwhile, the theory that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan has gained traction in the past few weeks.

A group of 18 scientists even published a letter in the Science journal on 13 May, calling for a more rigorous investigation into the virus origins. The scientists said the theories pertaining to accidental leaks from labs and natural spillover are both viable.

This comes after a team sent to China by the World Health Organization concluded in March this year that the the lab leak theory was “extremely unlikely”.

However, WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the research team’s assessment on whether the virus entered the human population following a laboratory incident was not “extensive enough” and required further investigation.

Even leading US health expert Dr Anthony Fauci, who dismissed the lab leak theory a year ago in May 2020, has now said he is “not convinced” the virus developed naturally.

Also read: WHO’s report on origins of Covid-19: Highlights, reactions and criticism by world leaders


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