COVID-19 and lab safety

It's interesting to compare Vox's take on whether or not the current coronavirus of concern escaped from a lab to their takes on lab safety in roughly the past year. This for example is what Vox published in March 2019:

They then in September published another article noting that a Russian labs which contained samples of smallpox and ebola exploded.

This compares to a March 2020 article with the following subheading:

There’s a rumor the coronavirus started in a Chinese lab. And a scientific consensus it didn’t.

The article then elaborates on what this might mean:

In one version of the rumor, the virus was engineered in the lab by humans as a bioweapon. In another version, the virus was being studied in the lab (after being isolated from animals) and then “escaped” or “leaked” because of poor safety protocol.

The first version of this seems likely to be false based on various evidence that I've seen reported - i.e. it seems highly unlikely this is an engineered bioweapon. The second though seems somewhat more probable to me. What's the defense the article offers against the second explanation?

These are the two references to experts that the article cites:

  • Jim LeDuc, head of the Galveston National Laboratory, a level 4 biosafety lab in Texas: “I can tell you that lab in Wuhan is equivalent to any lab here in the US and Europe"

  • Gerald Keusch, a professor of medicine and international health and associate director of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories: "I don’t think there’s any likelihood that the lab is less prepared in terms of protocol and capability than any lab in the US. It’s really good, though nothing is perfect"

It seems as though that lab in Wuhan was likely about as safe as comparable labs in the US and Europe, but if you compare to Vox's article from 2019 embarrassing failures of lab safety procedures have also occurred in both regions.

I wonder if the best way to look at the situation re: safety is in that quote from Keusch on safety there: "really good, though nothing is perfect".

The whole situation makes me think of another sort of thing that a lot of safety precautions are taken regarding: nuclear weapons. Read Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, and I suspect you might walk away thinking that, in spite of the precautions taken, that it's almost surprising that no nuclear weapons have been accidentally detonated to this point.

There's no definitive proof, but for me The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs was enough for me to update my best guess as to the source of the current pandemic to being a lab containment failure.

Despite this, I don't think that it's reasonable to blame China for being the site of such a containment failure if indeed one happened there as they seemed to be taking precautions that met standards of comparable labs around the world. Roll the dice often enough at labs around the world and eventually one will probably roll a bad result.

I do think that it is reasonable to blame China for its efforts to suppress information about this outbreak (which I definitely think it was doing, given treatment of original whistleblowers and whatnot, regardless of whether or not this was indeed a lab containment failure). I suspect that given the embarrassment if would cause the host country of the lab to have a pathogen escape would like cause many countries to follow a similar strategy of suppression - and again I want to stress that it doesn't appear that the labs in question were operating with lower safety standards than their counterparts around the globe.

Some might say that the current pandemic means that dangerous infectious diseases shouldn't be studied in labs, but I tend to think they should be. It does leaves researchers investigating these diseases in somewhat of a Catch-22 situation though - i.e. you're stuck trading off between a slightly increased chance of outbreaks with an increased chance of finding better ways to fight outbreaks (which I think are inevitable whether or not these diseases are studied in labs).