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Laboratory containment measures might have improved in recent years, but the universal propensity for human folly remains the same
It was mid-summer 1978 and I was a recent microbiology graduate. Sat at a bench in a London hospital diagnostic virology lab, I had been asked to dispense a volume of culture medium. So, I selected a sterile glass 10ml pipette… and placed it in my mouth. “George,” my boss Kev began, “what are you doing?” Kev’s query was delivered at the top of his voice, and enriched with a fiery expletive, implying grave concern at my technical competence.
The silence of a heavy snow descended over the noisy lab. “Uhm, it’s what, uh, I was taught at university,” I mumbled, removing the pipette from my mouth. When Kev’s fury had subsided to mere anger – his eyeballs back in his skull and his spleen duly vented on the merits of a university education – he taught me how to use a rubber bulb for pipetting and said that I must never mouth pipette again. Did I understand? Yes, I did.
Weeks later, on 24 August 1978, Prof Henry Bedson of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Virology at Birmingham University analysed samples from 40-year-old medical photographer Mrs Janet Parker – who worked in the Anatomy Department on the floor above Bedson’s smallpox research lab – and confirmed that she had smallpox. On 1 September Bedson entered his garden shed, slit his throat and died five days later; and on 11 September Janet Parker succumbed to the disease.
So, it was with gratitude towards Kev, and resentment towards my erstwhile microbiology lecturers, that I read pages 75 to 81 of Nature (vol 277, 11 January 1979) on the aftermath of the incident. They reveal that when three World Health Organisation (WHO) inspectors visited Bedson’s lab on 4 May 1978 they were “very critical of the safety precautions taken at the laboratory… [recommending] …that all mouth pipetting be prohibited…”. Ah.
On the one hand, I heaved a sigh of relief that by not mouth pipetting I had reduced my chances of becoming infected with some of the rich bounty of bugs awaiting me. On the other hand, my sigh was tempered by the knowledge that our diagnostic section was not equipped with an exhaust protective cabinet. When working at an open bench with clinical samples and virus-enriched cultures, taking one’s work home is best avoided.
I contemplated this during an unpleasant fortnight in my north London digs. Every day my landlady opened my bedroom door just wide enough to place a mug of hot milk and brandy on my sideboard, convinced that it would cure the aseptic meningitis I had acquired from a culture of Coxsackie virus.
These memories have resurfaced during the current debate over the origin of the causative virus of Covid-19. On 14 April 2021 I wrote to Private Eye noting that in “Bats v labs (issue no 1545, p8), MD [Dr Phil Hammond] is wrong to assert that medical photographer Janet Parker, who died of smallpox in 1978, ‘contracted it while working at the smallpox laboratory at Birmingham Medical School ….’”
My letter (unpublished) cited Health and Safety Executive Inspector Mike Griffiths, who interviewed Prof Bedson in August 1978. Writing in The last victim of smallpox, published by The Safety and Health Practitioner (August 1998, 17-18), Griffiths speculates that one reason for Mrs Parker becoming infected is that the virus could have “been transmitted through the service ducts, which connected the smallpox laboratory with the Department of Anatomy on the floor above [where Mrs Parker worked]”.
However, Griffiths makes two further observations that make interesting reading in today’s Covid-19 context. First, once news of the smallpox incident was out, there was a clamour for vaccinations in Birmingham, and “[h]oliday destinations such as Italy and Malta refused to accept British tourists unless they came armed with a certificate of vaccination”. Second, Griffiths states that the Advisory Committee of Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP) had published a Code of Practice in 1976 “following a similar outbreak at the London School of Tropical Medicine [sic] in 1973”.
The ACDP demanded stringent controls over agents like smallpox, using measures such as airlocks, negative air pressure, air filtration, showers, and effluent sterilisation. None of these measures was in place at the Birmingham lab, yet one of the ACDP members was… Prof Bedson.
It is true that laboratory containment measures have changed over the 42 years since I dared to mouth pipette and when working with clinical samples and viral cultures at an open bench was accepted practice. What has not changed is the universal propensity for human folly to which none of us is immune.
Bloom et al correctly demand in Science (14 May 2021, p694) to “Investigate the origins of Covid-19”, observing of a China/WHO joint study that “[o]nly four of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident”. Politics is involved in the Covid-19 origin debate and as the historian Prof Ivan Illich observed in his essay ‘Disabling Professions’ (1977), a government “that bases its decisions on expert opinions given by professions might be government for, but never by the people”.