In this post, a simple Bayesian evaluation of Fort Detrick as the possible source of SARS-CoV2 is performed using public information.
A baseline probability of 0.05 was assigned to the US military's biological safety level 4 (BL4) lab at Fort Detrick, as the possible source of SARS-CoV2 pandemic. This is based on the current epidemiological belief that the SARS-CoV2 originated from a natural animal reservoir and accidentally spilled over to the human population.
Significant operational issues were recorded at Fort Detrick, which led to the shutdown of a portion of the lab in 2019. These included lapses in bio-safety and containment procedures that increased the risk of exposure of the lab staff to air-borne pathogens.
Even though the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that there were no exposures associated with these significant safety critical breaches; due to the strong probability of mild symptoms following SARS-CoV2 infection among the Fort Detrick lab workers, especially among those who were healthy and fully vaccinated, it is highly likely that the exposure surveillance mechanisms may have returned false negative results.
The likelihood value of 0.680 was assigned for a lab leak from Fort Detrick, based on the following four factors:
Even with significant safety lapses and chronic underfunding, the Fort Detrick facility undertook gain of function research. The lab workers have previously complained about the work culture at Fort Detrick, that it lacked proper oversight or training to adequately handle the various biohazards and pathogens investigated by the research facility.
Many of the researchers are lieutenant colonels or colonels with no educational background or training in handling biohazards or pathogens. Still, the leadership of the research facility, unfairly expects these insufficiently trained lab workers to have a detailed knowledge of all the biohazards and pathogens handled by the facility. There are also some anecdotal evidences of using the national security guise to hide several previous safety lapses at the Fort Detrick lab.
Based on an organizational culture that de-emphasized safety in handling biohazards and pathogens, a likelihood score of 0.680 was assigned for a lab leak from Fort Detrick.
The likelihood value for a lab leak from Fort Detrick can be fine-tuned in the future using careful and thorough audit of the experiments, pathogen samples and research methodologies undertaken by the lab.
Outbreak of the otherwise unexplained respiratory tract diseases that showed clinical features similar to COVID19 were reported across the US starting March 2019. Two distinct outbreaks are of particular interest: the still unexplained vaping illness and the onset of unexplained pneumonia cases among the elderly in the vicinity of the Fort Detrick lab.
The unexplained cases of acute lung injury among young adults, were attributed to vaping. One of the diagnostic criteria for vaping related illness was the ruling out of viral causes of acute lung injury. Since the clinically available viral diagnostic panels, prior to 2020 did not include SARS-CoV2 detection, the viral panels must have returned false negative results.
Toxic chemical exposure to unknown, unidentified adulterants was theorized as the cause of vaping illness. The features of lipoid pneumonia is associated with the toxic chemical exposure. It should be also noted that a majority of the lung biopsy specimens of vaping illness lacked the lipoid pneumonia findings.
Uncharacteristically, the public health officials in the US made the highly questionable decision to declare a previously undocumented respiratory tract illness with the features of a viral infection, was due to an unknown toxic etiology. This was a critical juncture in the chain of events leading to the COVID19 pandemic.
The US public health decision to classify vaping illness as a purely toxic exposure disease, resulted in effective stymying of the research by the US healthcare systems and the US independent medical research community, to identify any unknown infectious agent responsible for the vaping illness.
Also, there were several unexplained viral panel negative pneumonia outbreaks among the elderly, in the residential areas close to the Fort Detrick area. These unexplained pneumonia cases were eventually recorded in multiple US states, akin to COVID19. Since the viral panels were not designed to look for SARS-CoV2, the viral infection screen would have returned a false negative result.
On hindsight, both of these unexplained respiratory tract diseases fit the overall clinical characteristics of COVID19.
Since the age groups were separated by classifying them as different unknown respiratory diseases, to an untrained eye, it gives the false impression of the age ranges of the affected population not matching that of those officially diagnosed as SARS-CoV2 infections.
But, by clustering these two unknown disease entities together, the age discrepancy between COVID19 and these mysterious respiratory tract diseases are eliminated. A major proportion of these cases, could have occurred due to SARS-CoV2 infection following the bio-safety or containment breach at Fort Detrick.
Vaping was also subsequently shown to increase the risk of contracting COVID19. Elderly population were also at higher risk for contracting COVID19.
Based on the clinical features, and their possible spatiotemporal relationship with the events at Fort Detrick, the clusters of unexplained respiratory diseases in the vicinity of Fort Detrick to have originated due to a lab leak from the facility was assigned a likelihood score of 0.680.
The likelihood score for the unexplained respiratory tract disease outbreaks can be fine-tuned in the future by conducting reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing or viral culture or both for SARS-CoV2 detection in the biological samples that were collected from individuals with unexplained respiratory tract diseases between August 2019 and October 2019.
The 2019 World Military Games was hosted by Wuhan in October of that year. There are anecdotal evidences suggesting COVID19 outbreak among the participants of this event. If there was a SARS-CoV2 release following the bio-safety or containment issues at Fort Detrick, it is highly likely that the virus could have already been circulating among the US military service members that attended the event.
Since the healthy, fully immunized adults, especially those that received the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine have milder symptoms, there is a very high likelihood that SARS-CoV2 went undetected among the US military service members.
Our experience with the COVID19 pandemic has shown that a sporting event could act as a super-spreader event. Since the SARS-CoV2 was an unknown entity to the Chinese officials in October 2019, it is very likely that, during the event, none of the healthcare professionals in China were looking for clues associated with SARS-CoV2 infection. This global sporting event could have acted as a proverbial catalyst for a pandemic.
Based on the spatiotemporal relationship between Wuhan Military Games and the possible outbreak in Fort Detrick, a likelihood score of 0.95 was assigned. This score was based on the probability of COVID19 pandemic due to the Wuhan Military Games acting as a super-spreader event, following the outbreak of SARS-CoV2 among the US military service members after an exposure event at Fort Detrick.
The Bayesian analysis of a lab leak from Fort Detrick as the factor behind COVID19 outbreak, returned an overall likelihood score of 0.906. This analysis deliberately omitted the genomics evidences and the atypical flu outbreak patterns observed in 2019.
Including the genomics evidences as well as the rise in unexplained flu like illness in the US in 2019, could have tipped the scale further towards the lab leak from Fort Detrick hypothesis. But, both of these data needed further analysis and will be included in a follow-up article.
Based on the publicly available evidences, the likelihood score in favor of Fort Detrick as a possible source of COVID19 pandemic is very high, but, it is not strong enough to displace the current epidemiological belief that the COVID19 originated in an animal reservoir and accidentally jumped to the human population.
This surprisingly high likelihood score warrants a second look by the epidemiologists interested in exploring alternate theories about the origins of COVID19. This analysis also gives an insight in to why this theory is widely discussed by the public.
TLDR: Fort Detrick is an ideal candidate for investigating lab leaks as a possible source of SARS-CoV2. The very high likelihood of 90.6% was calculated using Bayesian approach to update beliefs. They are based on evidences pointing to significant safety breaches at Fort Detrick, a lack of safety culture at Fort Detrick, the rise of unexplained respiratory tract diseases in the vicinity of the lab and the US participation in the 2019 World Military Games in Wuhan as a possible super-spreader event that enabled SARS-CoV2 to cross borders and become a pandemic.
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