One question our chief scientist needs to answer

Published by UnHerd (21st June, 2021)

Sir Patrick Vallance has had a good pandemic. The country’s chief scientific officer pushed hard for early lockdown, came up with the idea for a vaccine task force that proved such a triumph and has looked consistently assured in the media spotlight.

Now he has been rewarded with a new post of national technology adviser, handed a mandate to replicate the successful vaccine procurement programme in other areas. This popular character will also run a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy to drive Whitehall’s strategy with a brief from prime minister Boris Johnson “to cement the UK’s place as a global science superpower.”

This appointment makes perfect sense. Yet there is one niggle that Sir Patrick needs to clear up: what was his role in the strenuous efforts of the global scientific establishment to stifle debate on the origins of the pandemic?

It is now clear that leading experts, backed by supine journalists and politicians, pushed the idea that those daring to challenge the dominant view — that Covid 19 was definitely a natural spillover event from nature — were conspiracy theorists for arguing that the possibility of a laboratory leak in Wuhan should not be ruled out.

The dissidents have now been vindicated amid acceptance that both theories remain valid. Yet we have seen that leading scientific figures colluded to argue against the plausibility of “any type of laboratory-based scenario”, as one influential commentary  in Nature Medicine stated. At the centre of events lies a mysterious teleconference led by Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, early last year that was joined apparently by Vallance.

This emerged from emails obtained from Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases chief. The teleconference was called after he was sent a long article on January 31 that detailed how researchers were investigating genomes to unravel the virus’s beginnings. It examined also controversies over risky ‘gain of function’ experiments and discussed the work carried out by Professor Shi Zhengli at Wuhan Institute of Virology with her British partner Peter Daszak in sampling thousands of bats and finding hundreds of new coronaviruses.

This led to a flurry of emails from Fauci — and then Farrar setting up the urgent conference call for the pair of them the next day with 11 other global experts. The Wellcome boss insisted their conversations were confidential. They also discussed contacting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation.

Two days after this discussion, Dr Tedros delivered a sudden call to “combat the spread of rumours and misinformation”. Three days later, Daszak began circulating a note enlisting signatories for a Lancet statement published the following month that attacked “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. It only emerged later from another tranche of emails that Daszak co-ordinated this statement, which was signed by Farrar and 25 others.

Also on the conference call was Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research Institute in California. When Fauci sent him the article, he responded that the genetic sequences of the new virus showed “some of the features (potentially) look engineered.” He added that other experts agreed the genome was “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory”. Yet he was lead author on that Nature Medicine note. Intriguingly, Farrar admitted to me he helped convene its authors.

So what was discussed at that mysterious teleconference? Unfortunately, vast chunks of the Fauci emails that might reveal the answers were redacted and Farrar had declined to reveal the details. When I tried to find out more from Vallance, his press people told me I had to submit a Freedom of Information inquiry. Yet as he has said “openness and transparency around this disease is a social imperative” — especially now that it has become so entwined in issues about trust in science.

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