“How did it start?” is among the many questions raised by the Covid-19 pandemic. Answering it may help prevent future pandemics.
The escape of SARS-CoV-2 from a research laboratory in Wuhan, China, continues to circulate as a viable and popular explanation for the pandemic’s origin. But by accepting the lab-leak hypothesis, leaders may mistakenly seek new policy solutions or focus on tenuous yet alluring proposals about biosecurity, including high-tech means of enforcing restricted access.
We believe that such actions would be ineffective and costly diversions from the core issue of institutionalizing existing and effective biohazard protocols.
What should be done? Research institutions, funders, and principal investigators must prioritize and reward integrating standard biosafety measures into daily bench practices. Biosafety must become a core feature of good biological science, incorporated into funding, training, publishing, and promotion procedures. In short, biosafety habits need to be taken seriously.
Laboratories are spaces of discovery, but also of danger. The balance between discovery and danger is routinely managed — and managed well — with attention to proven biosafety knowledge and lab practices. Over the past 50 years, the biosafety field has developed techniques, technologies, and methods to contain biological materials that protect researchers and the public.
Unfortunately, biosafety protocols are not routinely and consistently practiced, especially when they are interpreted and treated as bureaucratic interference that is peripheral to good science rather than integral to it.
In the popular imagination, dangers emanating from labs, like the release of a deadly virus, are created by some combination of evil insider genius, stateless terrorists, and shadow military personnel who maliciously engineer or mutate a virus, then release it into the world. It’s a scenario that offers intent, intrigue, and conspiracy.
Yet scientists, including the signatories to a May 2021 letter to Science magazine calling on the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, know that such exciting and conspiratorial plot lines largely misrepresent laboratory practices, materials, and personnel.
Biological materials are almost never “leaked,” “released,” or “stolen.” Instead, pathogens and toxins walk out of laboratories across the globe because the required safety protocols are compromised or not followed at all. They leave the lab inadvertently, attached to the researcher working with or near the material.
There is no intrigue in that, no conspiracy or evil genius, only the banality of failing to enforce and follow existing procedures for accessing, handling, and storing biological matter. That may mean forgetting to wipe down a lab bench, using improper glove techniques, not wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, or not cleaning equipment properly.
These ordinary failures were evident in the three known leaks that caused outbreaks of SARS in the early 2000s. The root cause in each case was a “breach of good laboratory practice.” Thirteen cases of SARS originated from research laboratories in Singapore, Taiwan, and Beijing. In Singapore, a researcher unknowingly worked with a sample of West Nile virus contaminated with SARS-CoV. Such cross-contamination is usually the result of improperly or inadequately cleaned equipment and benches and improper use of gloves. In Taipei, a scientist who had been working intensely in a biosafety level 4 laboratory over a long period and for long hours each day was exposed to the virus while using improper precautions and techniques to clean up a spill.
Should a research laboratory have been the origin of SARS-CoV-2, it is likely that the root cause will be the same: a breach of standard safety protocols.
Researchers do not lack proven approaches to manage dangerous materials. What is lacking are the institutional attention and resources to make biosafety routine, integrating it into habitual bench practices. This is not a new, a difficult, or an expensive task. Abundant evidence exists that when organizations adopt pragmatic, adjustable, locally responsive processes, lab personnel figure out ways of working safely.
For example, using proper gloving procedures, decontaminating surfaces, and removing laboratory coats when leaving the laboratory are all practices that prevent the movement of biological materials out of lower-risk laboratories such as level 2 labs. Taking time to handle materials and using proper procedures to clean up spilled materials are also simple and well-known ways of preventing materials from leaving the lab.
There is no one-size-fits-all program for biosafety. Safe and secure laboratories experiment with procedures that fit local conditions and cultures. They share stories about their failures as well as their successes. These are not eye-opening innovations but pragmatic work habits. Consistently wearing the correct protective gear, replacing aging protective equipment, containing and destroying chemical and biological waste, and following rules for entering and exiting laboratories do not require investigative commissions, new procedures, or additional technologies.
The global research community does not need more rules, more layers of oversight, and more intermediary actors. What it needs is more attention and respect to already known biosafety measures and techniques. These are not external costs on research but essential constituents of it, and institutions need to devote more attention and resources to the banal — but essential — biosafety processes that already exist.
Ruthanne Huising is professor of management and organizations at Emlyon Business School in Lyon, France. Susan S. Silbey is a sociologist of law and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.