Head of Wellcome Trust accused of ‘chilling’ bid to stifle debate on lab leak theory
Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th June, 2021)
Shortly before the pandemic, Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the globally respected Wellcome Trust, delivered a speech offering his prescription for protection of public health: it required good leadership, free-thinking scientists and universal trust in their work.
The director of the world’s biggest philanthropic science funding body said he had ‘tremendous responsibility to be accountable for what we do and to be as transparent as we can be’.
So it is curious that since the Covid pandemic began, this hugely influential figure has been at the heart of the scientific establishment’s efforts to stifle debate on the origins of the virus that emerged in Wuhan.
The Oxford, Edinburgh and London-educated infectious diseases expert has claimed scientists ‘know’ Covid was not created in a lab, suggested such an idea was a ‘conspiracy theory’ and insisted that ‘evidence’ indicates it spilled over naturally from animals. Now The Mail on Sunday can reveal that emails from America’s top infectious disease chief, Anthony Fauci, show how Farrar played a key role behind the scenes in marshalling top scientists’ response to concerns over the virus’s origins, even demanding secrecy on their discussions.
Crucially, he was a central figure behind two landmark statements published by leading science journals that helped to silence dissident views, arguing against the plausibility of ‘any type of laboratory-based scenario’.
Scientists who have sought a proper investigation into the possibility that the novel coronavirus might have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory accuse Farrar of helping establish a ‘false narrative’ that has set back understanding of the disease.
His actions have also prompted alarm in Westminster. ‘Farrar is clearly an impressive individual, so we should all be concerned when someone of his stature appears to be stifling debate,’ said Bob Seely, a Tory member of the foreign affairs select committee. ‘It is chilling. The job of science is to go where the truth leads, not to stop us going there.
‘Distinguished people such as Jeremy Farrar should not have been participating in systematic and organised attempts to shut down open debate on such a vital issue for the entire world. We have a right to be worried.’
Sadly, this seems to have been precisely what the 59-year-old Wellcome chief has been doing.
The controversy over Farrar’s role comes amid growing international acceptance of a possibility that the pandemic began with a leak from one of the vaccine or virus research centres in Wuhan, despite China’s vigorous efforts to blame other causes.
But after President Joe Biden gave US intelligence agencies 90 days to detail how the virus might have spread from bats to humans, there has been mounting concern over how top scientific figures ‘colluded’ to divert attention from risky research in Wuhan.
Many insisted that science showed Sars-CoV-2 – the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – was a spill-over from nature, despite known safety concerns at Wuhan labs and some unusual features of the disease. Farrar – a former Oxford University professor who was appointed to lead the Wellcome Trust eight years ago -has been among the foremost voices making such arguments.
His position gives him immense power as the head of one of the world’s wealthiest charitable foundations, which has funds of £29billion and spent more than £1billion last year alone. He is also a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
Just weeks before the pandemic erupted, Farrar helped oversee a report alongside Fauci for the World Health Organisation that highlighted an increasing risk of global pandemic from a pathogen escaping after being engineered in a lab.
Significantly, it said scientific advances allowed ‘disease-causing micro-organisms to be engineered or recreated in laboratories’, warning that ‘accidental or deliberate events caused by high-impact respiratory pathogens pose global catastrophic biological risks’.
The authors may well have been proved right: the world was not prepared for a ‘fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic’ and the consequences are catastrophic.
Yet Farrar’s previous warnings jar with his actions during the pandemic. Last year, for instance, he said that people should ‘ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab’. His comment promoted an article in The Guardian by British scientist Dr Peter Daszak which criticised former MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove for suggesting Covid might have escaped accidentally from a lab, and sneered at those critical of his research partners at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The truth is, scientists have found no firm evidence on the cause of this pandemic, despite testing 80,000 samples from animals to find a possible natural link – but there is some circumstantial evidence to raise concerns over a leak from a Wuhan lab.
Yet Daszak and Farrar were among 27 leading experts who published a statement in The Lancet in February last year attacking ‘conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin’.
Daszak is a former Kingston University snail researcher who earns $410,000-a-year heading a virus-hunting charity called Eco- Health Alliance.
He has long-standing links with Shi Zhengli, the Wuhan Institute of Virology expert on coronaviruses nicknamed ‘Bat woman’ for her sample-gathering trips to caves in southern China.
Farrar’s endorsement of that controversial Lancet letter – clearly intended to shut down debate – looks even more intriguing after the publication by the news site Buzzfeed this month of 3,234 pages of Fauci’s emails from the early months of the pandemic.
They show that on January 31 last year, Fauci was sent a copy of an article in Science magazine that examined how researchers were doing investigative work on genomes to unravel the virus’s beginnings. The article detailed work by Daszak and Shi in sampling more than 10,000 bats and finding 500 new coronaviruses.
It also examined controversies over risky ‘gain of function’ work, which uses genetic technology to make natural viruses more dangerous, including mention of a 2015 paper on experiments by Shi and a US researcher that modified a Sars-like bat virus to boost infectivity to humans.
Science magazine quoted Richard Ebright, a bio-security expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, New Jersey, stating that data at the time was ‘consistent with entry into the human population as either a natural accident or a laboratory accident’.
Fauci immediately circulated the article to senior US officials. To one, he marked the email ‘IMPORTANT’ and attached the ‘gain of function’ paper. ‘Keep your phone on,’ he said.
A senior figure at the US National Institutes of Health replied that they were trying ‘to determine if we have any distant ties to this work abroad’. The Mail on Sunday later revealed the institute was funding Shi’s work, which was stopped by then president Donald Trump.
Fauci also sent the article to Farrar, saying: ‘It is of interest to the current discussion.’
In turn, Farrar set up an urgent conference-call involving himself, Fauci and 11 other global experts -including Sir Patrick Vallance, England’s chief scientific adviser. The Wellcome director, who appears to have led the teleconference, warned their discussions were ‘in total confidence’ and information was ‘not to be shared’ without agreement.
Farrar then became the centre of a flurry of emails that included mention of a discussion with World Health Organisation head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, amid fears that he might ‘prevaricate’.
Two days later, Dr Tedros issued a call to ‘combat the spread of rumours and misinformation’ and for ‘all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and co-operation’. Farrar also alerted Fauci to an article on ZeroHedge, a financial blog, that linked a Wuhan researcher to the virus outbreak.
Five days after Farrar’s conference-call, Daszak started circulating a draft around potential signatories for his Lancet letter, saying he was ‘dismayed by the recent spreading of rumours, misinformation and conspiracy theories on its origins’.
He cautioned, however, that they should ensure the statement was not ‘identifiable’ as coming from one person or organisation, so that it would be seen as ‘simply a letter from leading scientists’. Another key participant in Farrar’s call was
Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research institute in California who was the lead author on another highly influential commentary published just six weeks later by Nature Medicine journal.
This commentary, headlined ‘The proximal origin of Sars-CoV-2’ and cited almost 1,500 times in other scientific papers, boldly stated that the five authors ‘do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible’.
However, critics contested its claim of ‘evidence’ that proved Sars-CoV-2 was not a purposefully manipulated virus – yet like The Lancet letter, this document played a central role to dampen down scientific, political and media discussion of a possible lab leak.
When I asked Farrar to share his ‘evidence’ pointing to natural ‘zoonotic’ (animal to human) transmission, he cited this article.
Significantly, his office told me that he helped convene the five authors of the Nature Medicine commentary- who included the Australian professor Edward Holmes, an adviser to the Chinese health authorities, and Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at Edinburgh University. Both were on his conference call.
‘The conclusions reached by these world-leading experts have informed Jeremy’s views, along with other evidence-based research,’ said a spokesman.
‘He took a step back once the researchers were introduced and followed their results keenly.
‘He does not suggest that all other theories or explanations are conspiracy theories. But, as always in any branch of scientific research, any other theories must be evidencebased to hold any credibility.’
Yet the Fauci emails disclose that Andersen, who was sent the Science article, admitted a close look at all the genetic sequences showed ‘some of the features (potentially) look engineered’ and that several other experts agreed with him that the genome was ‘inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory’.
After this emerged, Andersen argued that the discussion was a ‘clear example of the scientific process’ – then deleted his Twitter account that had been full of tweets challenging those calling for a lab leak to be taken seriously.
Bio-security expert Richard Ebright said that he was ‘shocked’ Farrar has given such weight to the ‘pseudoscientific analysis’.
‘It is disturbing that both Fauci and Farrar have played key roles in establishing the false narratives of the last 15 months and that neither has made a clean break with them,’ he said.
For his part, Daszak thanked Fauci in April for ‘publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for Covid-19 from a bat-tohuman spillover, not a lab release from Wuhan Institute of Virology’.
Yet, at least three Lancet signatories have since admitted that the lab leak theory merits serious investigation.
They included Bernard Roizman, a University of Chicago virologist, who is ‘convinced’ the virus was taken to a lab, worked on and then ‘some sloppy individual’ took it out.
Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University epidemiologist honoured by China for his work in the country, who was one of the five authors of the Nature Medicine commentary, has also voiced concern over safety standards at the Wuhan institute.
Farrar told The Mail on Sunday he believes ‘the best scientific evidence available to date points to a scenario where the virus crossed from animals to humans and then evolved in humans’.
While saying it is critical to understand Covid’s origins to prevent future outbreaks, the Wellcome boss claimed there had been too much ‘conjecture and theory without data or evidence’ with no evidence to support the idea of a ‘laboratory-linked outbreak’.
In all this, there is one thing that surely all parties can agree on with Sir Jeremy Farrar – that everyone ‘stays open-minded while efforts continue to gather and share the evidence needed’ and that regardless of the outcome of investigations, it is absolutely vital to ensure all laboratories are safe.