The hypothesis that COVID-19 might have originated as the result of a scientific experiment has shone a spotlight on the safety protocols of the work carried out at the world’s most secure laboratories. While the evidence that links the coronavirus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology has rendered the hypothesis a highly improbable one, a number of experts still want tougher controls on such facilities amid fears that accidental leaks could potentially spark the next pandemic.
The Wuhan lab belongs to the most secure class of laboratories, commonly referred to as biosafety level 4 (BSL-4). BSL-4 labs are rare, but a small number do exist in the US and around the world. A BSL-4 lab consists of work with highly dangerous and ‘exotic’ microbes. Infections caused by these types of microbes are frequently fatal as there are no treatments or vaccines. There are 59 such facilities across the world, but there are no binding international standards for safe, secure and responsible work.
Will the current controversy surrounding the origin of the coronavirus open up a debate regarding how the world should enforce international scientific research safeguards? Or will we accept living in a world where these measures simply can’t be enforced? And in a broader context, will this lead to some kind of scientific and academic embargo?
If findings do suggest that the virus did somehow originate from a lab, it could spell the end of funding for international scientific research. Cross border concerns aside, this debate could also affect scientists on their own home front as the potential risks and fears associated with scientific hubris begins to mounts.
While the possibility that the COVID-19 virus was engineered is indeed small, the lack of conclusive information and evidence will undoubtedly lead to conspiracy theories, unrest and further upheavals as we attempt to return to a ‘normal’ that no longer exists. If there is even a microscopic chance that the COVID-19 virus was engineered in the capacity of gain of function research to be more transmissible and lethal–then the broader implications of scientific study itself may well come under query and careful scrutiny.