Beyond the Lab-Leak Question: Focusing on Global Efforts to Address Biological Threats

U.S. Marine Corps chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense specialists with Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron (MWHS) 3, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, April 30, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Keonaona C. Paulo 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Combat Camera/Released).

By Jackson duPont and Yong-Bee Lim

On June 29th, U.S. Senators asked Senate Leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell to delay the State Department confirmations for Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins and C. S. Eliot Kang. Their reason? To ascertain the nominees’ thoughts and knowledge on the “lab leak hypothesis” — the question of whether COVID-19 emerged from an accidental release at the Wuhan Institute of Virology instead of a zoonotic spillover event: an occurrence where a pathogen from an infected animal host encounters and causes disease in a human host.

On the surface, this delay may appear to be due diligence. However, this setback also hurts U.S. national security. Delaying the confirmation of strong nominees in key diplomatic positions limits the U.S. ability to fully exercise its national security capabilities: a significant problem given the rise in geopolitical tensions with adversary states and the global, ongoing concerns of phenomena like COVID-19 and climate change. While Jenkins was finally confirmed on July 28, the fact that this occurred only a week before important arms control discussions with Russia highlights the need for key leaders to be confirmed quickly.

While discovering the origins of the pandemic may give lessons for tomorrow’s challenges, it is quite possible that the international community will never know much more than it does today. The quest for precise answers should not come at the expense of concrete actions that the world needs to take to address existing and future biological threats. Further, it is clear that the reemerging conversation about lab safety in China has unintended consequences that must carefully be considered. In the following sections, this blogpost highlights further unintended consequences and concludes with a series of priorities that domestic and global governments should focus on to work productively towards the mitigation of future biological threats.

Unintended Consequence #1: Rising Violence Against Asians 

In addition to delaying the confirmations of Ambassador Jenkins and Kang, which hampered America’s ability to address nuclear and chemical threats, the lab-leak question had very real and deadly consequences for Asian Americans. Last year, as then-President Trump repeatedly focused great emphasis on COVID-19’s origin in China rather than focusing more on the urgent global responses required, hate crimes and violent attacks against Asian Americans rose precipitously. In one episode, Trump used the term “kung-flu” to describe COVID-19. Defending his remarks, then-White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany explained “The president does not believe it’s offensive to note that this virus came from China.”

This type of rhetoric has real consequences. According to a Pew Research survey, “32% of Asian adults say they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them,” and 81% of Asian adults indicated that they view violence against them is increasing — far greater than the national average of 56%. As hate and violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community continues to rise, the nation is risking losing focus or diminishing the cooperative conditions needed for addressing future biothreats. It is important that national rhetoric not otherize the onus of biological security or scapegoat marginalized communities — distracting from the international community’s collective responsibility to protect against the next catastrophe.

Unintended Consequence #2: Fueling Geopolitical Tensions

In March of last year, Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added further conspiracy theories to Twitter: “When did patient zero begin in the US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation! [sic]

Such rhetoric fuels geopolitical tensions—and the damage is already extending into other domains. A month after Mr. Lijian’s remarks, Trump considered issuing tariffs on Chinese goods over their handling of the virus. Last year, following the Australian Prime Minister’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID, China suspended trade and issued sanctions against Australian products.

Beyond the Blame Game: An Agnostic, Layered Approach to Addressing Biosafety and Biosecurity in a Complex World

In a recent War on the Rocks piece, Amanda Moodie and Nicholas Evans argue the importance of looking forward: “There will be far more blame to share if the international community becomes so fixated on the circumstances surrounding this unique case that it’s unable to see the big picture and predict or prepare for the next pandemic. There’s work that can be done in that respect while maintaining agnosticism about the origins of COVID-19.”

To the authors’ point, we cannot let the lab-leak investigation distract from the big picture: the world needs a global infrastructure that effectively mitigates biological threats. We need to build big to achieve this vision. The United States should ramp up efforts toward entering into new partnerships with the international community to pioneer a cultural shift towards stronger biosafety and biosecurity, increased disease detection, and new pathways of communication and cooperation that can be activated when—not if—the next threat arises. While these goals may be lofty, even small strides in the following four areas can have a huge impact towards making the world safer and more secure from biological events. 

First, U.S. lawmakers and global subject matter experts should look at the existing biosafety and biosecurity requirements for laboratories. Recognizing that there are 59 BSL-4 labs on this planet where an accident or leak could trigger the next global catastrophe (and many labs that could play this role with lower biosafety levels), lawmakers should work with diverse stakeholders to either clarify existing or develop new and improved safety and security regulations that bolster infrastructural protections and failsafes against the threat of accidental and anthropogenic biological threats. Since a majority of BSL-4 facilities are outside the United States, this provides a perfect opportunity to share knowledge and lead in biosafety and biosecurity management through Cooperative Threat Reduction programs such as the Biological Threat Reduction Program housed in the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the State Department’s Biological Engagement Program. These programs have a proven history of helping partner nations develop safer and more secure laboratory practices, as well as fostering the vital human relationships necessary to seek out new opportunities of engagement. Additionally, whether in the U.S. or abroad, policymakers should scrutinize the construction of new facilities and ensure that their contribution to the life sciences exceeds the inherent risk of their existence.

Second, these labs should collaborate with local health authorities to address potential issues that may arise. For example, if a high-safety lab researches a particular infectious pathogen, public health officials should know in advance and be actively screening for this pathogen in the population before an outbreak occurs. By surrounding these facilities in disease detection and early warning systems, the likelihood of catching a lab leak and stopping it increases significantly.

Third, as Moodie and Evans note in their work, transparency is key to mitigating future biological threats. Governments can promote transparency by educating local communities on the type of work being undertaken at their local laboratory, how it is designed to broadly protect them, and how to respond in an emergency scenario. This community buy-in and collaboration with public health officials and local residents not only works to protect against a potential outbreak, but may also reduce the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Finally, a fundamental lesson from COVID is that everyone has a stake in pandemic prevention. Factors such as ecological insecurity and climate change reinforce how natural disease outbreaks and pandemics will occur without a globally-coordinated series of interventions. Therefore, stakeholders need to generate an effective and executable implementation plan to prevent and prepare for the next one. The United States should coordinate with the global community to leverage existing or new institutions that bring diverse stakeholders from governments, industry, academia, public health, and civil society together to share expertise and concerns, design and test response plans, and create new pathways for collaboration to safeguard our world from biological threats. 

Given global interconnection and increased human-to-pathogen interaction, the fault of the next global pandemic will lie with those that did not prepare for it. By championing increased transparency and collaboration during emergencies, states and institutions can reduce the likelihood of the next outbreak growing to pandemic scale. 


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