The Covid origins debate has been stifled
Published by The i paper (18th October, 2021)
Perhaps the silliest comment during the demeaning Brexit debate was Michael Gove saying that people have “had enough of experts”, especially since it came from one of the more intellectually inquisitive politicians. The pandemic quickly exposed the foolishness of such populist claims as frightened nations turned to scientists for protection and salvation. Yet as the pendulum hurtled back towards trusting people with expertise, an equally absurd new narrative emerged: that we must follow “the science”, as if it is something fixed rather than endlessly fluid.
This is not a new concept. When the environmental activist Greta Thunberg was questioned in the US Congress two years ago about the evidence on climate change, she responded with amazement “because it’s science”. It is little wonder that while trust in politicians fell during the pandemic, it stayed high for scientists. Yet listening to a landmark BBC interview last week with Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, he went out of his way to stress how science revolves around uncertainty and progress depends on “always challenging” facts.
He is right. Science is about fierce debate, eternal questioning, sustained scrutiny. This is, as Vallance said, why scientists must be open about any politics and not fear “unvarnished” evidence – and why transparency is so important, especially in a pandemic, so other experts can challenge them or chuck in fresh evidence. So it is strange this same figure is at the centre of a mystery over the scientific establishment’s apparent efforts to shut down debate on any possibility that a laboratory incident in Wuhan might have led to a strange new coronavirus devastating the world.
Thanks to freedom of information requests in the United States, interviews and books we know that when the pandemic erupted many experts feared it came from a lab. This was based on the outbreak’s location, a city that is home to a cluster of centres performing high-risk research on bat viruses, and some unusual properties of the virus. Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research institute in California, said its binding mechanism “looked too good to be true – like a perfect key for entering human cells” – while another unexpected feature appeared like something expected “if someone had set out to adapt an animal coronavirus to humans by taking a specific suit of genetic material from elsewhere and inserting it”.
Vallance and Andersen were both among the participants on a hastily organised teleconference on 1 February last year, two days after a global emergency was finally declared by the World Health Organisation. The call was led by Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the most important private research funding body in Europe. It included the two most influential US scientists – Francis Collins, head of their major funding body that backed high-risk “gain of function” experiments into bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, and the infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, who seemed panicked the previous day after being sent an article on the research.
After the discussion, Farrar said he remained unsure if the virus had emerged through natural spillover from animals or a lab incident. Yet within days, the science establishment started attacking “conspiracy theories” about labs of the kind several of these people were espousing just days earlier. Farrar and two Wellcome colleagues signed a Lancet statement – covertly organised by scientist Peter Daszak, partner of Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers – that claimed such theories spread “fear” and praised Beijing’s “transparent” data sharing.
Now the mystery grows deeper. Andersen was lead author on one of the most influential papers in the pandemic – a Nature Medicine commentary accessed 5.5 million times that stated firmly “we do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. Another of the five authors, also on that call, said he was “80 per cent” certain of lab origin before their discussion. Farrar previously admitted that he had “convened” this statement. And now Vallance – defending a decision to redact the emails on this event when I sought them under freedom of information – has told the BBC that “the output” of that call was “a scientific paper published by that group”.
The implication is clear: the most influential figures in Western science, including the men holding the purse strings and several leading virologists, stifled debate on the origins. Perhaps there are good reasons for the rapid changing of expert minds. But we can only guess at them when these people decline to offer convincing explanations, the state refuses to let us see their logic by redacting emails and there remains no firm evidence to support theories of natural transmission. These emails were also blacked out in the US. Yet now we hear hollow pontificating from some participants about the need for openness to enhance scientific debate.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation keeps shooting itself in the foot. It kowtowed to China during the initial stages of the pandemic despite Beijing’s diabolical cover-up with disastrous consequences. Its belated first probe of the origins, controlled by China and even including Daszak, delivered a dire report that seemed dictated by the regime and sparked condemnation. Now it has set up a second, 26-strong team which includes at least 10 figures compromised by past actions, blinkered statements or research ties.
Gilles Demaneuf, a member of the “Drastic” team of researchers that has done much to expose flaws in the establishment narrative, responded that “after the first WHO team ended up in a farce, the choice of some of these next members looks very much like a sick comedy”. Yet these issues could not be less funny; they are of profound importance. We need to know what caused this catastrophe to protect the planet from future pandemics. Clearly, we cannot trust the Chinese dictatorship. But we should be able to trust Western scientists. Sadly, these issues remain clouded in confusion – and risk undermining trust in science when it has never been more crucial.