Did scientists stifle the lab-leak theory?

Published by UnHerd (22nd July, 2021)

In September 2019, even as a new respiratory virus may have started circulating in a central Chinese city, some prominent figures issued a wake up call to the world about the risks of a pandemic. The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, a group of 15 politicians and scientists brought together by the World Health Organisation, warned that a new disease could spread rapidly around the planet, killing millions of people while sparking panic, crippling economies and destabilising security. “The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic.”

The board members included Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, alongside George F Gao, director-general of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases expert and presidential adviser. This was not surprising: Farrar is an expert in tropical diseases as well as head of Europe’s biggest philanthropic research funding body and a sure-footed political operator in the world of public health. His £29bn foundation also helped cover costs for the board.

They were, of course, proved right almost instantly. Sadly, their report came too late to achieve its valiant aim of stepping up preparation for a pandemic given the speed of Covid-19’s spread from Wuhan last year. Yet their words were astonishingly prescient. And among the risks highlighted by these experts were the technological advances that “allow for disease-creating micro-organisms to be engineered or recreated in laboratories”, warning how their accidental release might be more devastating than a natural epidemic: “Accidental or deliberate events caused by high-impact respiratory pathogens pose global catastrophic biological risks.”

History shows that labs can leak. So it is strange that Farrar, like his two expert friends, has played such a pivotal role in stifling suggestions that this new virus might have come from a laboratory rather than emerged through natural zoonotic transmission from animals. Spike: The Virus v The People  — his book co-authored with Anjana Ahuja from the Financial Times — is a rather self-promotional work, lambasting the politicians he has been advising as a member of Sage for their failures in handling the disease, although his defence of publication seems valid. “Everyone needs to learn the lessons, scientists included,” he writes. “We only honour the dead by pledging to learn from the mistakes that cost them their lives. Protecting lives, and our way of life, is infinitely more important than protecting reputations.”

Such was his fury with government actions last summer that Farrar sent a memo to colleagues about the need to “be honest and transparent”. So why does he decline to answer questions about his own actions in early days of this pandemic that led to the crushing of discussion over possibility that it might be the result of some kind of incident involving one of Wuhan’s laboratories? These include Wuhan Institute of Virology, the biggest bat coronavirus research unit in Asia that was carrying out risky experiments and had known safety concerns. 

“It was odd for a spillover event, from animals to humans, to take off in people so immediately and spectacularly in a city with a biolab” writes Farrar — especially with a new virus that “seemed almost designed to infect human cells”. Many others had similar suspicions — and in recent weeks, such concerns have started being taken more seriously. 

Yet Farrar was a central figure behind two landmark documents published by influential science journals that played a key role in shutting down discussion of the lab leak hypothesis by branding it conspiracy theory. These statements, signed and promoted by leading figures in the scientific establishment, pushed an idea that the pandemic was a natural occurrence by arguing against the plausibility of “any type of laboratory-based scenario”. Critics say this “false narrative” set back understanding of the disease for more than a year.

Although Farrar criticises some aspects of China’s cover-up in his book — including confirming my report last June that scientists there had sequenced the Sars-CoV-2 genome in December 2019 before the world even knew about the disease — he went out of his way to praise Beijing in the early weeks of the pandemic. “China deserves great credit”, he gushed on Twitter in mid-January. Two weeks later he claimed it was “setting a new standard for outbreak response and deserves all our thanks”. Yet the reality was a Communist dictatorship that silenced doctors trying to warn citizens, covered up human transmission and allowed Chinese New Year festivities to carry on despite this entailing the largest annual migration of people on the planet. 

As the Wellcome boss says, “speed matters perhaps more than anything else in disease outbreaks”. Certainly things moved fast the day after that tweet when Fauci was sent an article in Science magazine examining how researchers were trying to unravel the virus origins. It detailed work by British scientist Peter Daszak and his friend Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in sampling thousands of bats and finding 500 new coronaviruses. The article discussed controversies over risky “gain of function” experiments, including mention of a 2015 paper by Shi and a US expert on modification of a Sars-like bat virus to boost infectivity to humans.

Emails released through freedom of information requests show Fauci instantly circulated the article to US officials and contacted Farrar saying it was “of interest to the current discussion”. The Wellcome boss then set up a conference call for the pair of them with 11 other experts from around the world, warning their discussions were “in total confidence” and information “not to be shared” without prior agreement. Farrar also sent Fauci a link to an article on ZeroHedge, a financial blog, that tied a Wuhan researcher to the virus outbreak. The site was banned the next day from Twitter — a move the social media firm later admitted was “an error”.

We do not know full details of what was discussed on the 1 February call since many of the emails were redacted and Farrar refused to tell me when I asked his office. We do know there were discussions that day over contacting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, with fears he might “prevaricate” — and that two days later the Ethiopian doctor made a call to “combat the spread of rumours and misinformation” and for countries “to work together in a spirit of solidarity”. 

We also know that five days after the conference call, Daszak began circulating the draft of a statement published later that month in The Lancet. This letter, signed by 27 global experts including Farrar and two Wellcome Trust colleagues, condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. Later it emerged that Daszak had organised this missive, telling signatories they must ensure it was not “identifiable” as coming from one person or organisation so it was seen as “simply a letter from leading scientists”. 

This Lancet statement played a key role in stifling discussion of a possible lab leak. Such was its influence that Facebook reportedly used it to block discussion of the idea — leading to one of my articles being labelled a conspiracy theory. Yet four signatories have since said the hypothesis merits investigation — with one now convinced Sars-CoV-2 arose from a “sloppy” researcher. Strangely, Farrar does not mention the Lancet letter in his book. And there is only brief mention of Daszak, saying he should not have joined the WHO study team in Wuhan after dismissing the lab origin — including in a Guardian article attacking “conspiracy theories”, an article that Farrar promoted on social media. “Always worth reading @PeterDaszak” the Wellcome chief tweeted.

Among the participants in Farrar’s call were four of the five eminent experts who published a commentary six weeks later in Nature Medicine entitled “The proximal origin of Sars-CoV-2”. This quintet — with lead author Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research institute in California — stated firmly that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. This statement in a world-renowned journal, which has been accessed 5.5 million times, further depressed debate of alternative theories on the origins, despite being challenged by a few brave voices in the scientific community.

Yet the release of thousands of Fauci emails last month revealed that Andersen, when sent the Science article at the end of January, admitted a close look at the genetic sequences of Sars-CoV-2 showed that “some of the features (potentially) look engineered” and that other experts agreed the genome was “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory”. Andersen later explained this showed “clear example of the scientific process” — then deleted his combative account on Twitter. 

Now things become even more perplexing with the release of Farrar’s book. He admits he was terrified by the “huge coincidence” of a coronavirus cropping up in “a city with a superlab” and the geo-political implications of a leak at a time of US-Sino tensions. “This was a brand-new virus that seemingly sprang from nowhere,” he says. “Except that this pathogen had surfaced in Wuhan, a city with a BSL-4 virology lab which is home to an almost unrivalled collection of bat viruses.”

The new coronavirus “might not even be that novel at all”, he thought. “It might have been engineered years ago, put in a freezer, and then taken out more recently by someone who decided to work on it again. And then, maybe, there was … an accident?” He was so concerned that he confided in Eliza Manningham-Buller, then the Wellcome Trust chair and a former head of the MI5 intelligence service, who told him to start taking precautions such as avoiding putting things in emails and using a burner phone for key conversations.

So what changed his mind so firmly he started signing letters and tweeting about alleged conspiracy theories? When I asked Farrar to share the evidence that set his mind at rest, he pointed to the Nature Medicine article. Yet his office told me later he helped “convene” these five authors. They also insist that “the weight of available data and scientific evidence continues to point towards zoonotic origins”. But scientists have found no hard evidence on the pandemic origins, despite testing 80,000 samples on animals to find a natural link, while China has made increasingly ludicrous claims over the origins as well as covering up the outbreak, lying over the date of first cases and taking offline Wuhan’s key database of samples and viral sequences.

Now Farrar writes that at the end of January Andersen “confessed” that three things alarmed him about the new virus: its receptor binding domain, which attaches to infect a host cell and “looked too good to be true — like a perfect key for entering human cells”; the furin cleavage site, not found on similar categories of bat coronaviruses and 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”; and a scientific paper using this technique to modify the original Sars virus behind the 2003 outbreak that “looked like a how-to manual for building the Wuhan coronavirus in a laboratory”.

Before the call on 1 February, Farrar says Andersen was “60 to 70%” convinced the virus came from a lab, while Australian virologist Eddie Holmes was “80% sure this thing had come out of a lab”. Patrick Vallance, Britain’s chief scientific officer who joined the call, tipped off intelligence agencies about their concerns. But others on the hour-long call argued the new virus “was more convincingly explained, scientifically, as a natural spillover than a laboratory event”. Afterwards, the participants swapped notes but Farrar remained torn on the origins. “On a spectrum if 0 is nature and 100 is release I am honestly at 50,” he emailed Fauci. “My guess is this will remain grey unless there is access to the Wuhan lab — and I suspect that is unlikely.”

Anderson told him that he suddenly realised he might be the person who proved the new virus came from a lab. “I didn’t necessarily want to be that person,” he said. “When you make big claims like that you had better be sure that you can conclude something is based on evidence and not on speculation.” So according to Farrar, then five experts wrestled with the evidence and, the following month, they declared in Nature Medicine that Sars-CoV-2 was “not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. 

They accepted the virus had strange properties that made it so virulent. But Farrar says their conclusion was based on the fact that it attaches to human cells so differently from the first Sars while also unlike “any of the known viruses used in gain of function research”. This was said to make “deliberate manipulation an implausible scenario” on grounds that “the most methodical way of conjuring up a nightmare virus would be to take a virus that is already a known quantity and crank up its infectivity”. They offered the circumstantial evidence that RaTG13, the closest known coronavirus to Sars-CoV-2, had different binding mechanisms — yet similar ones were found on pangolins, so “the ingredients…were out in the wild. They did not need to have escaped, or been unleashed, from a containment lab.”

This is a reasonable argument — but it is not firm evidence. Nor is it any more convincing than the idea of a leak. Not least since Shi has admitted to collecting eight more Sars-like viruses alongside RaTG13 in southern China that have not been shared, along with all those samples on the Wuhan Institute of Virology database that was mysteriously taken offline in September 2019. Shi was also forced to clarify the Nature paper she wrote on RaTG13 since she did not disclose its name had been changed from another virus identified in a previous paper. This masked a link to three miners who died from a strange respiratory disease caught while clearing out bat droppings in a cave hundreds of miles from Wuhan that was used by Shi and her colleagues to collect samples from bats.

There is another weird twist to Farrar’s story. He writes how the quintet published their findings in Nature Medicine “after the addition of new information, endless analyses, intense discussions and many sleepless nights” and agonising over the information. But two months ago Robert Garry, one of the authors, was interviewed about their efforts. “We looked at the possibility of lab creation,” he said. “We gave it every unbiased look. Our conclusion was it was very unlikely that it was a constructed virus cobbled together somehow in the lab.” Fair enough. Yet he added that “the first draft was complete on 1 February” — which was, of course, the same day as that conference call led by Farrar.

The Fauci emails also show that three days later, Farrar sent over “a very rough first draft from Eddie and the team”, urging his American friend to keep it confidential. The email trail includes a note from Holmes — who was an adviser to Beijing’s CDC — saying he was sending a summary that would be further edited. “It’s fundamental science and completely neutral as written. Did not mention other anomalies as this will make us look like loons.” When I queried this with Holmes, he responded: “It was a restriction enzyme site followed by some sequence conservation. We soon realised this was nothing untoward.” 

On the same day, however, Andersen told another group of experts that “the data conclusively show that neither (engineering for basic research or nefarious reasons) was done”. So far from having “many sleepless nights”, these scientists seem to have changed their minds amazingly fast and reached fresh conclusions.

The following day Farrar sent another note to Fauci saying the WHO had “listened and acted” and was asking for names for a group probing “the origins and evolution” of the virus. This was, presumably, the study group that — incredibly — included Daszak, despite possible conflicts of interest and one year later delivered a report downplaying a lab leak as “extremely unlikely”, which sparked furious condemnation across the West. And, yes, which Farrar said should not have included Daszak since “it would have been better for him to have recused himself and for the WHO to have appointed someone who would have been perceived as more impartial”.

The more we learn, the stranger these events seem to become. The one point of agreement in this fierce debate on the origins is that it is vital to find the truth so the world can be better prepared for pandemics — as those 15 experts warned us weeks before the pandemic erupted. More and more scientists, along with politicians and journalists, have come to accept the lab leak hypothesis is not a conspiracy theory and merits serious investigation until the facts prove otherwise — especially after Donald Trump’s accusations were echoed by his Democrat successor Joe Biden.

Despite Farrar’s initial concern, and his involvement in the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, he sees things rather differently. He insists “the evidence strongly suggests that Covid-19 arose after a natural spillover event”, although adding that we must ensure labs are safe. “The tragedy is that this entire controversy over the origins of the pandemic coronavirus turned out to be a distraction,” he concludes defiantly. “The conspiracist blame game was a fig leaf to disguise the failure of American governance.”

Yet for all his certainty, there are valid fears that we may really have been given an unwelcome glimpse of the failures of China’s governance — and the curious role of a Western scientific establishment in suppressing a crucial debate.

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