The theory that COVID-19 escaped from a lab has never been more popular. There are many questions about the degree to which it is plausible and which alleged evidence is more conspiratorial. Regardless of how likely you think the lab escape theory is, however, there’s something most pundits miss. That is: What should we be asking for—as a matter of policy and politics—even if it is a lab escape?
Truth is, it’s rare that proponents of the lab escape theory really have a plan. As biosecurity experts, we’re interested in the answer to the lab escape question. If the theory is validated (and there’s a chance, but it’s very slim), the coronavirus would be the first potential lab release leading to a global outbreak in more than 40 years. But as one of us has argued, even if true, that doesn’t necessarily change what we should be doing to protect against pandemics of all stripes. More fundamentally: There is no strong international legal basis on which to investigate the activities of biological laboratories—and we can’t create one overnight.
But it didn’t have to be this way. And the reason why there’s so little ability for us to know the safety of laboratories ahead of time, much less after a possible laboratory release, is a story of political failures over decades, leading up to the present confusion.
Despite the rapid expansion of biological technologies and the ability to create novel pathogens, the world has very little formal capability to investigate a pandemic disease that might have emerged from a lab in a way that would satisfy proponents of the lab release theory. If a nation suspected COVID were a biological weapons attack, it could invoke Article V of the Biological Weapons Convention and ask for a consultation among countries to determine the status of the claim. It could then use Article VI to bring a claim of a biological attack to the U.N. Security Council, though China, as a permanent member, could veto a decision to investigate such a claim.
Neither of these mechanisms, though, would give us the background information to nail down some of the claims proponents of the lab escape make: what diseases were studied at the lab in question, how often, and so on. To do that we would arguably need a verification mechanism to routinely inspect high containment labs, know their contents, and ensure they were operating appropriately. That mechanism nearly existed, but was sidelined by the U.S. in 2001.
The reasons why depend on who you ask. For some, it was a cynical move by the U.S. For others—including the U.S.—it was a recognition that the life sciences are so ubiquitous and diverse that, unlike nuclear weapons, it would be impossible to enforce, or at least too costly to both states and the labs inspected. The argument says that because developing a biological attack requires only a small amount of an agent (which unlike uranium or plutonium can be grown into larger amounts), a verification mechanism like we have with nuclear materials isn’t the right framework for biology. But no alternative mechanism has arisen since, and at least one group of commentators has noted that in rejecting the verification protocol as it did, the U.S. “effectively killed any favorable multilateral consideration of any ideas, however meritable, that it might bring forward at some subsequent date.”
What we’re left with is the International Health Regulations (2005), negotiated after SARS to detect and mitigate outbreaks that might become epidemics or pandemics and other events of international public health concern. Earlier versions of the International Health Regulations focused on a specific list of diseases that particularly concerned the international community; by 1969, that was limited to, cholera, plague, and yellow fever. Efforts to reform the IHR had been underway in the late 20th and very early 21st centuries, but not until the rapid global spread of SARS did the international community come together to update the treaty framework. While addressing emerging diseases and unexpected outbreaks was a central focus of the negotiations, discussions were complicated by the recent failure of Biological Weapons Convention verification efforts and fears that the International Health Regulations would be used as a stand-in mechanism for security issues.
These suspicions were not unfounded: During the negotiations, the U.S., European Union, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Nicaragua pushed to include chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents in the treaty as “events.” Other countries were concerned that the inclusion of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear events in the IHR would allow too much overlap with other nonproliferation treaties, including the Biological Weapons Convention, leading to the eventual creation of the catch-all definition in the International Health Regulations decision annex: “[a]ny event of potential international public health concern, including those of unknown causes or sources and those involving other events or diseases than those listed …”
Unlike the Biological Weapons Convention, which would not have covered a laboratory release, this catch-all category would cover an accidental release. It could have allowed the WHO to investigate the possibility of a lab release if stronger measures were also included in the IHR 2005.
But there were two major sticking points in the updating of the International Health Regulations: reporting by nongovernment sources and WHO inspection. Early drafts of the updated International Health Regulations allowed the WHO to “verify rumors of public health risks,” a recognition of the success of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network encouraging collaboration in outbreak reporting. This language caused significant debate about both what would qualify and where such rumors might originate. Some countries wanted any nongovernment source reported by name, which would likely have discouraged reporting in the first place. Others worried “rumors” was so broad as to allow the treaty to become a political tool. This language was eventually softened to the current version of Article 10, which allows WHO to “request verification from a State Party of reports from sources other than notifications or consultations of events which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern allegedly occurring in the State’s territory.”
Verification of public health events through WHO was also controversial, particularly once the definition of “event” was made flexible enough to cover chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents. Original drafts of the updated International Health Regulations 2005 would have allowed “on-the-spot studies by a team sent by WHO.” In the early 2000s, many countries were wary that investigations through the International Health Regulations might be an attempt to create an alternative to the failed Biological Weapons Convention verification protocol. The U.S. in particular objected strongly to the article and refused to move forward without softened language. Several countries were concerned about the power to inspect laboratories, investigate within national borders, and investigate outbreaks without the collaboration of the national government. Given discussions in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on June 7, the concern may have been prescient. In the end, the language was softened to allow only voluntary investigations in collaboration with the state, a process we saw play out in the investigation of the origins of COVID. Clearly, this investigative process was not enough for proponents of the lab leak theory. But because of the history of the International Health Regulations, it’s all we have.
In the end, the International Health Regulations of 2005 do allow reporting of a lab release and collaborative, voluntary investigation of one. But the conflict over Biological Weapon Convention verification and concerns around sovereignty means there is no stronger mechanism to verify the origins of COVID. Although the International Health Regulations do require reporting and information sharing, there is no mechanism to force them if a state decides not to participate.
It’s a profound irony, then, that American calls for verification and transparency lack teeth precisely because of the U.S. tanked two verification mechanisms. But this lack of capability, in some ways, also lets proponents of the lab release theory off the hook. They want transparency, true. But there’s not really anything anyone can do, short of cooperation—which proponents seem not to want—to make this case any clearer.
What we need in this case is not to divorce science from politics. Rather, we desperately need better politics. The lab release debate has been largely directed by scientists, journalists, and politicians, whose knowledge of the failures of previous attempts to better secure the life sciences at an international level is limited. We may never settle the question of a lab release definitively. But we need a better international system to understand and respond to biological threats anyway.
What the lab release debate needs is a series of proposals about what we do next. What it needs is a plan. That plan doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t, wait for the results of an investigation. And that’s because the work to prevent the misuse and accidental harm of the life sciences stalled years ago at the international level. Getting that started again is vitally important.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.