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The 1979 Lab Leak

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A photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis bacteria using Gram stain technique. Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating B. anthracis from the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions or by measuring specific antibodies in the blood of persons with suspected cases.

Very interesting stuff…

Patients with unexplained pneumonias started showing up at hospitals; within days, dozens were dead. The secret police seized doctors’ records and ordered them to keep silent. American spies picked up clues about a lab leak, but the local authorities had a more mundane explanation: contaminated meat.

It took more than a decade for the truth to come out.

In April and May 1979, at least 66 people died after airborne anthrax bacteria emerged from a military lab in the Soviet Union. But leading American scientists voiced confidence in the Soviets’ claim that the pathogen had jumped from animals to humans. Only after a full-fledged investigation in the 1990s did one of those scientists confirm the earlier suspicions: The accident in what is now the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg was a lab leak, one of the deadliest ever documented…

It shows how an authoritarian government can successfully shape the narrative of a disease outbreak and how it can take years — and, perhaps, regime change — to get to the truth.

“Wild rumors do spread around every epidemic,” Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel-winning American biologist, wrote in a memo after a fact-finding trip to Moscow in 1986. “The current Soviet account is very likely to be true.”

The parallels with Covid and Wuhan are obviously intriguing. The differences are important too; the contemporary media environment is radically different than 1979, and China is necessarily far more open than the USSR. Still, there are useful lessons about how authoritarian regimes cover up embarrassing incidents (and sourcing Covid to a Chinese lab would be deeply embarrassing for the CCP both domestically and internationally), as well as important caveats about how science distinguishes between theories that are unlikely and theories that are impossible. Both mass media and state bureaucracy are poorly equipped to manage scientific uncertainty, which is why we see the “lab leak” narrative shift dramatically back and forth over the course of a few months.

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