There’s a conspiracy theory that the new coronovirus which has brought the world to a halt was engineered by Chinese scientists in a lab in China. This has received heightened media attention in recent weeks after the former head of MI6 publicly supported the idea. While it seems unlikely someone deliberately created and unleashed the virus, it’s entirely plausible that scientists were studying a number of coronoviruses found in bats and one of these accidentally escaped from a lab. It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.
In 1978, Janet Parker became the last person on earth to die from smallpox. But she didn’t catch it naturally. It came from a lab at the university she worked at in Birmingham, UK.
Smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s after a world-wide vaccination campaign by WHO. The last natural case was in 1977 in Somalia. Today smallpox exists only in two labs (one in the US and the other in Russia) where it is kept for research purposes. This has been the subject of much debate with some people arguing it should be completely destroyed. The virus itself is not necessary to create the vaccine.
In 1978 the virus was also kept in a lab directly beneath Janet Parker’s office at Birmingham Medical School. To this day, no one knows exactly how she got infected but there’s no doubt that it came from that lab. Professor Henry Bedson was leading the smallpox research at the university and he and his staff had all been recently vaccinated for smallpox but Parker’s last vaccination was in 1966. An inquiry after her death found three possible routes of transmission – air ducts between her office and the lab, person-to-person contact, or via contaminated objects.
Janet Parker became ill on 11th August 1978 and died of smallpox on 11th September 1978. Hundreds of people were immediately put in quarantine to contain the spread of the disease and more than 500 people were vaccinated. Two other deaths occured indirectly. Parker’s father died of a heart attack after visiting his daughter in hospital and Professor Henry Bedson committed suicide on the 6th September 1978 leaving a note, “I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work.”
If Covid-19 did result from a lab accident, would the Chinese admit to it?