If a Lab Accident Could Create Penicillin, One Could Have Unleashed COVID-19

It is astonishing to realize that two of the biggest medical developments of the last 100 years may have resulted from human error: Both may have been brought about by laboratory carelessness. 

One of them rescued millions from certain death during and after World War I and led to the creation of the field of antibiotics. The other has created an enormous harvest for the Grim Reaper and has killed over five and a half million people worldwide and counting. It has been a source of great sorrow. 

For better or worse, if the individuals working in the two respective labs had been more careful, neither of these developments would have taken place. When presented side by side, these two episodes of human frailty offer us a bittersweet cocktail like no other in medical history and an irony of enormous proportions. 

Truth be told, Alexander Fleming was known for keeping a messy lab. Some even suggested that his habits were more than a little disgusting. 

In September of 1928, the biologist left his London lab for a two-week vacation in Scotland without bothering to clean up. He simply left a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. But these were dishes of a special kind: petri dishes smeared with Staphylococcus bacteria. Upon his return, instead of meticulously cleaning up the mess, he noticed that one of the dishes had an unusual mold growing in it, which had killed the staph around it. 

A more meticulous—or less intellectually curious—scientist might have simply washed away the grunge and returned to his daily routine. But Fleming had an epiphany for medical science and for mankind as a whole. 

Fleming described what had happened in an article in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in 1929. In the article, he described the penicillin colony as a “fluffy white mass which rapidly increases in size and after a few days sporulates” and changes color from dark green to black to bright yellow.

Fleming said: “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.” 

The work of turning the early breakthrough into a practical medicine that could be produced in large quantities was first taken up by Howard Flory and Ernst Chain at Oxford. (There was a great deal of friction between the two as to who deserved the most credit for their work.) 

A substantial amount of further research and development was necessary to take the program to the next level. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, the large pharmaceutical companies in the United States (Merck, Squibb, and Lilly) were able to produce penicillin in the massive quantities the world needed.  

In the end, Fleming, Flory, and Chain all won the Nobel Prize for medicine. It’s one of the happiest stories in history and many, many lives were saved. 

While the basic facts regarding the development of penicillin are widely accepted, the same cannot be said for COVID-19. In fact, the basic chronology of one of the worst pandemics in world history is a tangled mess. At the center of this tragedy is a besieged and uncooperative Chinese government lashing out in anger at its critics. 

The very public debate that is raging in Congress and in the press concerns where the virus began and who or what is responsible. The two highest-profile figures in this controversy are Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Dr. Antony Fauci, NIAID director, and Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor. 

Senator Paul has accused Fauci of cooperating with the Chinese government and supporting the laboratory that bioengineered the deadly virus. Fauci has denied this.

According to a September issue of The Atlantic, “a group of guerrilla lab-leak snoops called DRASTIC” released a compelling document. This document gave evidence of a proposal from the president of a global non-profit “to study potentially dangerous pathogens by generating a full-length, infectious bat coronavirus in a lab . . .” 

The document seems almost tailor-made to buttress one specific theory of a laboratory origin: that SARS-CoV-2 wasn’t simply brought into a lab by scientists and then released by accident, but rather pieced together in a deliberate fashion. In fact, the work described in the proposal fits so well into that narrative of a ‘gain-of-function work experiment gone wrong’ that some wondered if it might be too good to be true.

The article adds that “there is good reason to believe that the document is genuine.” 

The sad, final story of COVID-19 is yet to be written. There is good reason to suspect, however, that it is an example of a tiny blunder that led to a big disaster with billions of people worldwide paying the price for the recklessness and arrogance of a few. Until the story runs its course we will have to watch and wait for the final outcome. In the meantime, each of us will have to make individual, and fateful, decisions as to whether to take the recommended vaccines or not.

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About Jared Knott

Jared Knott, author of Tiny Blunders/Big Disasters: Thirty-Nine Tiny Mistakes That Changed the World Forever. Knott was a decorated combat infantry officer in Vietnam in the First Air Cavalry Division.

Photo: Peter Purdy/BIPs/Getty Images