An occasional review of technology, markets, and ideas.

History Doesn't Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes

In 1979 antrax escaped a lab in Russia and killed 66 people. The official story? That people had eaten tainted meat. Fast forward 41 years, and a novel coronavirus shows up in Wuhan, China. The story? Tainted meat from bats. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Anton Troianovski of the NYT tells the story of how in 1979 the Soviet Union was developing biological weapons at a research lab in Yekaterinburg. At some point, the anthrax bacteria escaped from the lab and killed 66 people:

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.

The incident was a closely guarded secret and the KGB propagated the lie that these deaths were due to contaminated meat. Foreign scientists – experts – were called in to investigate. Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate in biology, concluded "the Soviet account is very likely to be true." Another biological weapons expert determined that the Soviet explanation was "plausible" given the consistency of the evidence.

If this plotline sounds familiar it should. A novel coronavirus originates in Wuhan, China home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where coronaviruses are studied. China locks the country down and China's National Health Commission orders all research institutions to not publish any information related to the unknown disease and ordered them to destroy any samples they had. All the while, the overwhelming narrative was that any talk of a "lab leak" was an unfounded conspiracy theory.

While we still don't have definitive proof about the origin of SARS-CoV-2, it's interesting to note the similarity in how both the USSR and China handled the dissemination of information after discovering a novel pathogen. As Mark Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

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Jamie Larson