Sunday, May 30, 2021

Debate over origin of COVID highlights catastrophic systemic risks

I do not claim to know where the COVID-19 virus originated. And, I don't think we will ever know for sure. But claims and counterclaims about its origin highlight a systemic problem that goes far beyond the details of this debate. In this case, those positing a possible laboratory origin believe that scientists manipulating coronaviruses for research purposes may have carelessly let one of their altered viruses infect them. The scientists then unknowingly carried the virus out of the lab and into the streets of China.

What's important about this scenario—and again, we have no definitive evidence it happened—is that it could occur in any of the special laboratories worldwide which study dangerous infectious diseases. A recent report highlighting the problem listed 59 biosafety level 4 labs (the highest level), a tally that includes those planned and under construction. Some 42 are believed to be currently operating. These labs "are designed and built to work safely and securely with the most dangerous bacteria and viruses that can cause serious diseases and for which no treatment or vaccines exist." (For a very brief primer on biosafety levels, read this.)

So, how closely are these labs monitored? The report continues, "There is, however, currently no requirement to report these facilities internationally, and no international entity is mandated to collect such information and provide oversight at a global level. Moreover, there are no binding international standards for safe, secure, and responsible work on pathogens in maximum containment labs."

Only one lab needs to make one mistake with a serious and easily communicable disease for which there is no treatment to inflict a catastrophe on the world population.

The key element not present in other risky pursuits is that viruses and bacteria self-propagate, that is, they reproduce themselves independently of our efforts, thus spreading themselves in human populations. And, that spread is something that we've made so exceptionally efficient in our hyperconnected world that infectious micro-organisms will be forgiven for believing that our modern societies were designed by a virus for the convenience of viruses and other infectious agents.

In all the furor over laboratory safety, few people understand that we have taken other organisms genetically altered by humans and intentionally spread them worldwide with virtually no safety testing beforehand. These organisms are called genetically engineered crops and animals. We are now undergoing a global uncontrolled experiment to see how they affect 1) the health of humans and animals to which we are feeding these crops and 2) habitats which are impacted by the spread of novel engineered genes to wild and domesticated plants through pollen.

The champions of this kind of unbridled risk-tasking cannot guarantee that there will be no catastrophic consequences. But they do say that the risk of any real and significant problem is a million to one—or some such number.

First, only closed games of chance such as roulette can ever offer such statistical measurements for risk because all the variables are known. Second, even events that are rare happen if enough opportunities arise. In a game of Russian roulette, a hypothetical gun with a million chambers and one bullet will in all likelihood not kill you if you pull the trigger once or twice. But if you pull it one million times, you will almost certainly perish. And, that is what we are doing in the field of genetically modified organisms which carry with them the risk of systemic ruin because they are self-propagating and because we have deployed them worldwide. Now, we are pulling the trigger on a daily basis hoping that nothing really bad happens.

Both biosafety labs and genetically engineered crops and livestock create the possibility of catastrophic systemic ruin for human societies. Even though we take the former less seriously than we should, we recognize the possibility of ruin resulting from carelessness. The possibility of ruin caused by the effects of genetically engineered crops barely registers as a concern in our society.

The world has already experienced a lot of people contracting and dying from the Ebola virus in very short order. We don't need convincing that Ebola and other similar infectious agents are dangerous. But general societal ruin resulting from the effects of genetically engineered organisms used for food and fiber may happen slowly at first and only after a considerable period catastrophically undermine our food system.

Both cases above are examples of biohazards. We should keep that in mind the next time the media touts another advance in genetic engineering.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Frank Warnock said...

Excellent article and great analogies, Kurt. Thanks so much and keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

Hello Kurt, not related to this post but you may be interested in Simon Michaux's latest report 'The Mining of Minerals and the Limits to Growth.' Simon works for the Geological Survey of Finland. The report can be found here:

Steve Bull said...

Systemic risks. Yes, it is an issue we avoid like the 'plague'. We could likely create a long list of processes and projects humanity pursues that severely underestimates or ignores the inherent risks.

Here is what I just finished writing as commentary on an article from a Canadian online news site (

"The 'gain of function' research on coronaviruses has an interesting history. It has been supported and carried out by a number of nations, China and the US included. Do and can accidents happen in biosafety labs? Absolutely. Do China and the US compete and accuse each other of misdeeds? All the time.

What I've read about this incident is not so much about geopolitical intrigue as some are making it to be (that seems to be just a leveraging of evidence to support political ends which is what the political/ruling class does all the time), but about scientists intent on continuing research in spite of warnings and criticisms of the dangers. There is good evidence that US interests (including Dr Anthony Fauci’s NIH) helped to fund the Chinese research because it had been discontinued in the US. In fact, Dr Fauci wrote several articles a number of years ago arguing for the research to continue despite the moratorium (see this:

The assumptions that the Chinese are going to be transparent and forthcoming in their investigations about the origins of the virus are naive at best. Governments (all) are rarely if ever transparent and forthcoming about anything, anytime. To believe otherwise is just foolhardy in my opinion and serve mostly to support a particularly narrative.

I also disagree that we will find out eventually where this coronavirus mutation originated given how political the entire situation has become. There will likely be a camp who believe it originated naturally and a camp who believe it was manufactured by humans—even among scientists. Obfuscation is the hallmark of politics, especially with the importance of propaganda to control narratives and populations; and disagreement and cantankerous debates over interpretation of evidence permeates all science. Beyond some politicians leveraging the incident for political ends, there are a number of US researchers who don't want the trail of breadcrumbs about the continuing gain of function research leading to them to be discovered--listen to what Dr. Rand Paul has accused Dr. Fauci of; he's not accusing China, he's accusing researchers like Fauci and EcoAlliance's Peter Daszek of helping to pursue and fund gain of function research.

Finally, I think we'd be better to try and close down safely all the biolabs, worldwide. Just as we should try to decommission all our nuclear plants and weapons. The hubris we display to believe we can control the negative consequences of these dangerous practices is phenomenal and will surely be our undoing--or at least, the undoing of future generations who will have to deal with the banquet of consequences of our dangerous ways."

rjs said...

the first i heard of this technology was in the 70s, i imagine sometime after the Asilomar Conference, when the debate came into public view...that conference was called to discuss issues surrounding recombinant DNA, ie:

In the summer of 1971, experiments were planned to introduce SV40 DNA into an E. coli cell. This was of concern because SV40 is a monkey virus that can transform monkey as well as human cell lines into a cancerous state.

as i recall, they were going to use E. coli for those experiments because they believed it was harmless and unable to result in a transferable infection..

it's now 50 years later...we're just damn lucky it's taken this long for the genie to get out of the bottle..

Michael Dowd said...

Excellent, as usual, Kurt.
~ Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow