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Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2023

Best Audiobook Narration (History) - Society of Voice Arts and Sciences


Pandora's Gamble: Lab Leaks, Pandemics, and a World At Risk

From the Publisher:

In public, the "lab leak" hypothesis was labeled a conspiracy theory. Yet in private, some of the world's elite scientists discussed the very real possibility that the Covid-19 pandemic started with a lab accident. They knew what the public doesn't: Lab accidents happen with alarming frequency. Even at the world's best-run labs. History shows there are a stunning number of ways "lab leaks" can happen. In Pandora's Gamble, investigative reporter Alison Young reveals the shockingly lax approaches to safety - even at prestigious institutions - that are putting all of us at risk.

Chapter 1 - Martyrs to Science

KFF Health News - "Did a military lab spill anthrax into a public waterway? "

USA Today - "Lab-created bird flu virus accident shows lax oversight of risky 'gain of function' research"

PANDORA'S GAMBLE cover image.jpg

Kirkus Reviews

(Starred Review,

Best Books of 2023)

“She renders scientific issues in lucid, accessible prose that vividly conveys the insidious nature of potentially lethal microbes ... A hard-hitting and timely report on a pervasive threat."

Zeynep Tufekci


The New York Times

"As Young’s remarkable book extensively documents, scientists are prone to the human and institutional instinct to deny problems and hope for the best... Young lays out the shocking extent of lax laboratory standards and procedures and lack of accountability and transparency in the United States and around the world." 

Susan Page

Washington Bureau Chief

USA Today

"Before the rest of us were paying attention, Alison Young was covering the dangers of safety lapses at the world's top laboratories. She opens her meticulously reported, deeply alarming book by exploring the 'horrifying possibility' that Covid-19 was the result of just such a breach in China. Essential reading for policy makers - and the public." 

David Wallace-Wells


The New York Times

"Lab accidents happen, and they aren’t especially rare ... 'Pandora’s Gamble: Lab Leaks, Pandemics, and a World At Risk' is a shocking accounting of the problem." 

Featured Documents

In addition to the extensive endnotes published in Pandora's Gamble, some additional source records will be highlighted here. 


2019 H5N1 incident

On December 9, 2019, the Kawaoka lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had a safety breach involving one of the world’s most infamous lab-created “gain of function” viruses. But UW didn't report the incident to the NIH Office of Science Policy, which oversees U.S. research with engineered pathogens, until February 10, 2020. Under the transparency requirements of the NIH Guidelines for Research Involving Recombinant or Synthetic Nucleic Acid Molecules, such incident reports are public records, yet the report and some of the related correspondence released to me by NIH under a federal Freedom of Information Act request is stamped "CONFIDENTIAL." The report also includes a note that says: "*Confidential – do not release this information without written authorization of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison." Read more about this incident in Chapter 15 of Pandora's Gamble, and in this excerpt published by USA TODAY.


2015 responses to Gryphon Scientific "gain of function" site visit

In the summer of 2015, as part of the U.S. government’s review of the risks and benefits of gain-of-function research of concern, a team of scientists from Gryphon Scientific visited with officials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to learn more about their policies and procedures for detecting the potential loss of containment when experimenting with laboratory enhanced H5N1 influenza viruses. This document, obtained through a public records request I filed with the local Madison and Dane County health department, reveals UW’s written answers to the Gryphon team’s questions, which were circulated among themselves and a member of the local health department the day before the site visit. In this document – contrary to what happened after the December 2019 H5N1 PAPR incident --  UW told Gryphon that workers with potential exposures would not be treated any differently than workers who were certainly exposed. “People with a known potential exposure would be immediately quarantined as described above. Following any potential exposure, the individual is immediately quarantined until there is consultation with university and local/state public health officials, the PI [principal investigator] and laboratory staff member.” Other revelatory details about the Kawaoka lab’s practices are also disclosed in this document.


2013 H5N1 needlestick incident

In November 2013, a member of the Kawaoka research team accidentally pierced their finger with a needle that had an engineered H5N1 virus on it.


2013 NIH concerns about a lack of dedicated quarantine facility, biosafety

Following a 2013 needlestick incident, NIH officials were surprised to learn that UW-Madison lacked a dedicated quarantine facility.


2013 H5N1 spill incident

This is a copy of the incident report referenced in NIH's correspondence expressing concerns about biosafety practices during 2013.

USDA National Animal Disease Center

Enforcement records show the USDA National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa, had three releases of wastewater that was potentially contaminated with select agent pathogens.

2019-2020 wastewater releases

UNC-Chapel Hill

Feb. 4, 2016 lab-created coronavirus incident

A researcher in Ralph Baric's BSL-3 lab was weighing mice infected with a lab-created SARS-like virus when one of the mice bit her. While the university's  medical director for occupational health discussed options for isolating the researcher, she was instead asked to wear a surgical mask and allowed to move about in the community while on fever watch to see if she was infected.

UNC-Chapel Hill

Other incidents with coronaviruses 2015-2020

Records obtained from UNC and NIH show additional incidents involving lab-manipulated coronaviruses during 2015-2020.  UNC redacted its records to remove references to SARS viruses, NIH did not. 

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