How Edinburgh University stifled my investigation

Published by UnHerd (19th January, 2024)

Almost 150 years ago, a young medical student at Edinburgh University was inspired by one of his lecturers to devise a detective with remarkable powers of deduction based on solid scientific principles. Arthur Conan Doyle wanted a hero for the modern age who relied on logic and reason, and the creation that resulted — Sherlock Holmes — was such a success that the character still enthrals the world. Yet today Conan Doyle’s alma mater is betraying its claims to champion critical thinking and transparency in a manner that would certainly have aroused suspicions of that literary sleuth.

For Edinburgh University officials are stifling my efforts to help find the truth about the origins of Covid-19 in order to protect one of their top academics, who finds himself a central figure in a furore of worldwide significance. It might seem a long way from Wuhan, where the pandemic erupted at some point in 2019, to Scotland’s genteel capital. But at the core of debate over the birth of a strange coronavirus stands an evolutionary biologist called Andrew Rambaut. This influential professor, among the world’s most cited scientists, is accused of playing a key role in efforts by a cabal of prominent experts to suppress the idea Covid might be linked to risky research carried out inside a Chinese laboratory.

Science, of course, depends on data, evidence and unfettered debate. And tracking down Covid’s origins could help protect the planet from future pandemics; it might even have implications for the global tussle between autocracy and democracy. But it seems clear now there was an alarming cover-up led by the heads of major American and British research funding bodies — and the emails exchanged between Rambaut and other leading players might shed light on what else went on behind the scenes.

Edinburgh University boasts a “culture of openness” on its website. But it rejected my requests under the Freedom of Information Act to access these emails on the basis that such a move might affect their professor’s health and safety. After 27 months — and following my appeal to Scotland’s Information Commissioner — the university admitted finally it held the information that I sought. However, it declined still to release it into the public domain, and rebuffed similar requests on the same grounds from US Right to Know, a public health campaign group that has winkled out significant information on these issues using similar tactics.

So in the absence of their evidence, let us examine some of the existing data. After all, as Conan Doyle once wrote to explain how dodgy theories can get bolstered to mask the truth, “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”. There are at least 10,000 cities on our planet. And yet, Covid emerged in the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan. This sprawling city is hundreds of miles from the nearest colonies of wild bats with similar coronaviruses, found in the tropical caves of southern China, so the location surprised even Shi “Bat Woman” Zhengli, their leading expert on such diseases. She is based at Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s most important bio-security laboratory and the biggest repository of bat coronaviruses in Asia. It had known safety concerns. And it was conducting risky research to boost the infectivity of mutant bat viruses in humanised mice in low-level biosafety conditions.

Other labs in the city were also carrying out cutting-edge scientific work. So it did not take the forensic genius of a great detective to suspect the emergence of Sars-CoV-2 — the strain of virus that causes Covid-19 — could possibly be tied to research in the city. Especially when this new disease had a feature not seen on more than 200 similar types of coronavirus called a furin cleavage site, which allows its spike protein to bind effectively to cells in many human tissues.

Maintaining on an open mind regarding all possible scenarios the available data might indicate should not have been controversial. This is, after all, the basis of science. Yet from start of the pandemic, a few prominent scientists, led by the bossses of the most important research funding bodies in Britain and the US, publicly dismissed fears Covid might be linked to a Wuhan lab. This led the suggestion to be scorned as “conspiracy theory”, condemned by patsy journalists, and even dismissed by some people as racist.

Among these experts was Rambaut, who ran the online site that first published the Sars-CoV-2 genome after it was leaked by a brave Chinese scientist in early 2020 in tandem with their mutual friend Eddie Holmes, a Sydney-based British virologist. Before the pandemic, both men were critics of the sort of “misguided” virus-hunting carried out by Wuhan scientists such as Shi in those bat caves of southern China. Some of this work was carried out with Western partners, especially the controversial British scientist Peter Daszak and his EcoHealth Alliance group that was backed by US taxpayers.

Yet in mid-March 2020 — just 11 weeks after Taiwan tipped off the World Health Organisation about a weird new disease in Wuhan, and six weeks after the body had declared Covid to be an international emergency — Rambaut and Holmes were among five authors of a commentary in Nature Medicine hastily stating that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. This unequivocal statement — entitled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” — was arguably the most influential scientific document published in the pandemic. It was even cited in the White House by Anthony Fauci. And it was singled out to me for its significance by Sir Jeremy Farrar, the former head of the Wellcome Trust who was appointed as the WHO’s Chief Scientist last year.

It has since been revealed through leaks, investigations, books and a barrage of freedom of information requests that these two scientific leaders, along with the head of the biggest US science funding body, were involved in covertly drafting this statement (although strangely not credited). And it emerged that some of these scientists privately feared the possibility of a laboratory link even as they drafted the paper condemning such ideas. Farrar himself had complained to Francis Collins, then the head of the US National Institutes of Health, which helped fund some research in Wuhan, about the “Wild West” biosecurity at labs in the central Chinese city. Private messages released though a Congressional inquiry — detailing “super secret” discussions between Rambaut and three fellow authors of the “proximal origins” statement — further exposed concerns that Covid might be tied to scientific research, along with concerning signs of pressure from “higher ups” to squash such a stance.

One admitted the lab escape theory was “so friggin’ likely” based on work carried out in Wuhan and molecular data — leading Rambaut to say that their discussion of the idea “shows how plausible it is”. In February 2020 he wrote: “I personally think we should get away from all the strange coincidence stuff… I agree it smells really fishy but without a smoking gun it will not do us any good. The truth is never going to come out (if escape is the truth).”

Rambaut also said that “once you lose the market as the origin, all bets are off” — a reference to the theory that the virus originated with an infected animal in a food market, ruled out three months later by the Chinese authorities. The Edinburgh academic also wrote about “the shit show” if “anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release”, arguing they should say “given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content with ascribing it to natural process”.

Such discrepancies between the private views of prominent experts and their public positions, published in prestigious journals with commercial ties to China, fuel fears that powerful scientists — whether trying to appease China or mask Western funding ties to risky research — duped the world by trying to stifle debate. Needless to say, this has been firmly denied by those involved. Rambaut, however, also used social media to debunk the “Mojiang miners theory”. This suggests Sars-Cov-2 might be tied to three miners who died from a respiratory disease, similar to Covid 19, that they caught while clearing bat droppings in a cave network in south China. The trio were infected in an abandoned copper mine where scientists from Wuhan sampled RaTG13, the closest known relative of Sars-Cov-2.

Having been looking into these issues since early 2020, I requested Rambaut’s email discussions with Farrar, Fauci, Holmes and Danish evolutionary biologist Kristian Andersen in relation to that controversial Nature Medicine document. I had made an earlier effort to obtain emails between these experts through Whitehall and Sir Patrick Vallance, then the government’s chief scientific adviser, but this resulted in release of a batch of documents so heavily redacted that they were almost worthless. So I sought Rambaut’s emails with Vallance, too, on this issue.

This was far from a journalistic fishing exercise — as proven by evidence that has emerged elsewhere from other FOI requests. These include US Right to Know’s exposure of how Daszak had secretly organised another notorious statement published in The Lancet early in the pandemic that condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin” and ridiculously praised Beijing for “rapid, open and transparent” sharing of data. It was signed by 27 experts, including Farrar and two Wellcome Trust colleagues.

Daszak also authored a $14.2 million funding request to the Pentagon’s research arm for a study supposedly “defusing the threat of bat-borne coronaviruses” that suggested the insertion of “human-specific cleavage sites”. US Right to Know found last month that he envisaged much of this controversial gain-of-function work being carried out in Wuhan — although Ralph Baric, his partner on this project, admitted they might grow viruses in such low-level biosecurity that US researchers “will likely freak out”. The initial 2018 proposal was rejected since it could “put local communities at risk” — but clearly there were plans afoot for precisely the sort of high-risk work in Wuhan that could have led to the pandemic.

We still do not know the definitive answer to the riddle of Covid’s origins. But we do know China’s Communist dictatorship covered up the emergence of a deadly new virus with disastrous consequences, silencing medical whistleblowers and burying crucial data that could have saved lives. We know that two major US intelligence agencies feared the virus leaked from a lab. We heard housing minister Michael Gove tell the Covid inquiry  “there is a significant body of judgement” that believes coronavirus “was man-made”. Meanwhile no sustainable evidence has emerged to prove the claims of zoonotic transmission, despite desperate efforts to link animals such as pangolins and raccoon dogs to the spread of a bat disease into humans.

Curiously, Edinburgh University admitted last year to being over-reliant on Chinese funding with more than 7,500 students coming from Asian superpower, compared with 11,000 from England. Two months ago, Civitas think tank accused it of taking £12 million in five years from bodies with ties to China’s military — revealed through freedom of interest requests. Such sources of finance are not unusual at our universities, sadly, but it would be disturbing if such links were the real reason why this prestigious institution does not want to release important documents that might embarrass Beijing.

It rebuffed my request in an eight-page letter from its legal chief that even had the gall to argue that Rambaut had already published his views on Covid origins in that contentious Nature Medicine article “accessed over five and half million times”. The letter — ironically delayed for months by Covid’s impact on working practices — ruled that disclosure of their professor’s emails might “endanger the physical or mental health or safety of an individual” following “threatening behaviour against several academics in this narrow field”. Like many journalists, I am aware of the unsettling nature of abuse and threats. Such treatment is unacceptable for any scientist, however famous or controversial. But it should be pointed out that it is the shameful behaviour of some of science’s leading lights that turned this into such a toxic debate, which became all the more poisonous after becoming entangled in tribal politics amid disingenuous talk of conspiracy theories.

Science, like academia and journalism, should not be undermined by hiding of key information. Data, facts and evidence should be shared, not shackled or suppressed in a democracy — especially if they might cast light on the worst public health disaster for a century.

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