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Exclusive Interview With Author " William Sargent"

Terror By Error? Award-Winning Writer, NOVA Consultant William Sargent On The Possible Link Between Gain of Function Experimentation And COVID-19

If you have never heard the phrase Gain of Function Experimentation, you are not alone. Even among scientists, this type of research is not widely discussed. Scientist William Sargent wants to change that. In his book Terror By Error?, the award-winning writer seeks to start a dialogue about the problematic experimentation process that he, and many others in the scientific community, believe to be at the root of the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the following interview with Writer’s Life Magazine, Sargent explains the process of Gain of Function and underscores the importance of doing away with this practice for good.


For readers who might not be familiar with your work and contributions to the world of science, can you describe your career, background, education, etc?  

I’m one of those Cape Cod kids who never outgrew his bug stage. I spent my childhood collecting worms, crabs, and bugs and scrutinizing them under an ancient but beloved microscope. I went on to study biological anthropology at Harvard, Law of the Sea at the Fletcher School of International Law and worked as a research assistant on a six-month oceanographic cruise to Africa, South America and the Baltic.

I was the first director of the Baltimore Aquarium and filmed the Ixtoc oil spill in Mexico and shot footage aboard a Soviet Trawler for La Planeta de Agua and NBC’s First Tuesday. But I finally settled down and returned to my family’s Cape Cod home to set up a marine biological laboratory that attracted gifted and talented kids from all over the country.

When NOVA science series approached me about helping to make a film about a freshwater pond, I told them I didn’t know anything about freshwater but when they were done, I had a great film they could shoot about a saltwater estuary. We shot the film and Houghton Mifflin published my first book Shallow Waters; A Year on Cape Cod’s Pleasant Bay in conjunction with the film. Shallow Waters won the Boston Globe’s Winship award and National Audubon selected the film as the best natural history film of the year.

Since then, I have written 27 books about science and the environment and the third edition of Crab Wars: A tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism and Human Health will be released by Brandeis University Press in September. I’m working on a second book about the origins of Covid-19 whose working title is The Ferret Sneezed.


Can you briefly describe what your latest book - Terror by Error? - is about? 

Terror by Error? explores the murky world between biological warfare and legitimate scientific research. I discuss how lab accidents have caused researchers to contract anthrax, smallpox AIDS and Ebola in the United States, the UK, France, Germany and the Soviet Union and that similarly, a lab accident is the most plausible scientific explanation for Covid-19. I cite a recent study that states that accidents serious enough to be reported to the World Health Organization occur on average every two weeks and make the point that this type of accident could have happened in any country where such research is being done.


To what extent was the United States involved in the type of experimentation you describe in the book? 

The NIH has funded Gain of Function research in the United States and China, but in 2012 it put a moratorium on such research in the United States because it was considered to be too risky. But it continued to fund Eco-Health a non-profit organization in New York that funnels the funds to the Wuhan Institute for Virology that still uses this dangerous technique. In essence what the U.S. has done is to outsource to China, research that it feels is too risky to be done in the United States, but too convenient not to be banned entirely.


Will anyone who is interested in this topic be able to dive in and digest the information presented? (Is this book for everyone?)

Yes. The book is written as a series of short, sometimes lyrical stories that takes readers inside the labs and the heads of the scientists, spooks and politicians involved.

What would you say to someone who believes that COVID-19 was unleashed on purpose; that this pandemic was planned?

I don’t think we have enough evidence to say that COVID-19 was released intentionally, but I also don’t think we can dismiss the possibility out of hand. We have just learned that some of the work was conducted in a military lab in Beijing. But at this point all the circumstantial evidence suggests that the pandemic was the result of an accident by a technician working under the direction of Dr. Ho Ben in Wuhan and Beijing.

Why did you feel it was important to publish this book now?

I think it is crucially important to have an open conversation about the origins of COVID, so we won’t have a similar pandemic within the next five years.

What would you like readers to take away from reading the book?

That nations need to agree to impose a permanent ban on Gain of Function research and search for safer but just as effective alternatives to these risky techniques.

To learn more about William Sargent and his book Terror By Error? please click here.


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