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The blog was uploaded by Mr Cummings, Boris Johnson’s special adviser, on March 4, 2019 – and with almost 5.5 million confirmed cases worldwide, including 344,731 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre, his words are eerily prescient. Mr Cummings, who referred to his past pandemic concerns during today’s Downing Street press conference to explain his lockdown trip to Durham, cites an article published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) on February 24, 2019 headlined Human error in high-biocontainment labs: a likely pandemic threat. Floating the possibility of a deadly disease escaping, Mr Cummings comments: “Science is ‘a blind search algorithm’.
“New institutions are needed that incentivise hard thinking about avoiding disasters.
As the piece above stresses and lessons from nuclear safety also show, getting the physical security right is only one hard problem.
“Most security failings happen because of human actions that are not envisaged when designing systems.”
With specific reference to the UK, Mr Cummings writes: “A hypothesis that should be tested: With a) <£1million to play with, b) the ability to recruit a team from among special forces/intel services/specialist criminals/whoever, and c) no rules (so for example they could deploy honey traps on the head of security), a Red Team would break into the most secure UK bio-research facilities and acquire material that could be released publicly in order to cause deaths on the scale of millions.
“A serious test will also reveal that there is no serious attempt to incentivise the stars of Whitehall to work on such important issues or involve extremely able people from outside Whitehall.”
The BAS article, written by Lynn Klotz, warns: “Incidents causing potential exposures to pathogens occur frequently in the high security laboratories often known by their acronyms, BSL3 (Biosafety Level 3) and BSL4.
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“Lab incidents that lead to undetected or unreported laboratory-acquired infections can lead to the release of a disease into the community outside the lab; lab workers with such infections will leave work carrying the pathogen with them.
“If the agent involved were a potential pandemic pathogen, such a community release could lead to a worldwide pandemic with many fatalities.”
The coronavirus disease – officially known as Covid-19 – was first detected in a seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of last year.
However, its source of origin is still unclear – and the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is located just a few hundred yards from the market in question.
A report written by Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao from South China University of Technology in Guangzhou and published via ResearchGate, a European commercial social networking site for scientists, last month, highlighted the WCDCP, which is less than a quarter of a mile from the market, as a possible source.
The authors mention one incident in which a worker was “once attacked by bats and the blood of a bat was shot on his skin”.
“He knew the extreme danger of the infection so he quarantined himself for 14 days.
“In another accident, he quarantined himself again because bats peed on him.”
They add: “It is plausible that the virus leaked around and some of them contaminated the initial patients in this epidemic, though solid proofs are needed in future study.”
Additionally, a study published in the scientific journal Nature suggested COVID-19 closely resembled to a coronavirus identified in bats originally found in Yunnan or Zhejiang province, 600 miles from Wuhan.
Given it was extremely unlikely infected bats would have flown there independently, it was probably they had been transported there by humans.
Despite speculation that the market was the source, “according to municipal reports and the testimonies of 31 residents and 28 visitors, the bat was never a food source in the city, and no bat was traded in the market”, the report added.
In addition to the WCDCP, Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, is just eight miles from the market.
The report said: “This laboratory reported that the Chinese horseshoe bats were natural reservoirs for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) which caused the 2002-3 pandemic.”
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