The Covid origins debate gets even murkier
Published by The i paper (19th December, 2022)
It is three years since a strange new disease began felling people in a city in central China, sparking the pandemic that has killed possibly 15 million people while causing immense collateral damage. There is still no clarity about whether this disaster was caused by human error, some kind of research mishap, or spilled over from nature. Yet there seems minimal official interest in determining Covid’s origins – let alone in confronting China over its refusal to share data that might help solve this medical mystery – although this hampers our ability to guard against a similar catastrophe.
From the start, the world was failed by the World Health Organisation. This UN body – run by a former minister in a repressive Ethiopian regime elected with Beijing’s help – praised China for “protecting the people of the world” despite the dictatorship silencing whistleblowers, declining to share data and delaying to warn about human transmission.
The organisation was slow to declare a public health emergency. It kowtowed to China with its ludicrous probe of the origins. And even its retiring chief scientist admits they were sluggish to warn of aerosol transmission, a delay that possibly cost many lives.
There are few signs of contrition. Its dismal director-general was handed a second five-year term without opposition. Now the body has appointed Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust research funding behemoth, as next chief scientist. This is a scandalous decision given his central role in trying to seemingly stifle suggestions that Sars-CoV-2 – the coronavirus strain that causes Covid – might not be a natural disease.
Science relies on openness. Yet the more that has emerged in emails, freedom of information requests, leaks and books exposing Farrar’s actions, the less confidence we can have in him holding a world-leading scientific role for all his undoubted expertise and political skills.
There are two issues in the origins debate (which, like many things, was muddied by Donald Trump during his presidency). The first is the core question of the cause. There is no conclusive evidence for natural “zoonotic” transmission from animals, despite intense searching to find a host creature that might have led a bat virus to cross over into humans.
Nor is there hard proof of a lab leak. We have, however, seen a tide of concerns over safety practices, data secrecy and risky research in Wuhan. Properties of the virus also strike many scientists as unusual, notably the “furin cleavage site” that enables more efficient entry into human cells and is not found on similar types of coronavirus.
Some respected scientists such as Robert Redfield – a virologist serving as head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the pandemic struck – conclude that “the nature of this virus is not consistent with spillover evolution”. He said last week that Sars-CoV-2 “clearly had to be adapted for human-to-human transmission and I do believe that occurred in a laboratory”, adding that the evidence points to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s first top-level biosafety lab and Asia’s biggest bat coronavirus research unit.
Other prominent figures disagree profoundly. This provokes the sort of passionate arguments that drive forward science as experts strive to prove their theories.
The second issue smacks of something darker: a bid to cover up any possibility that controversial “gain of function” research to boost infectivity – carried out in Wuhan, aided by Western funding – might lie behind the pandemic.
History shows that human error can lead to lethal laboratory accidents. Yet some top scientists, including Farrar, were quick to praise China, said experts knew Covid was not created in a lab, branded such ideas conspiracy theories and insisted “evidence” indicated it had spilled over from nature. Influential papers appeared in science journals to push such arguments. Patsy journalists lapped up their claims uncritically.
Gradually, drip by drip, it emerged that Farrar was helping lead a group of experts who colluded to crush suggestions the virus might be linked to research. Less than a fortnight after China confirmed human transmission, the Wellcome chief hosted a teleconference at the behest of the American presidential adviser Anthony Fauci. It included the head of the biggest US funding body and Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, along with several participants who feared Covid might be tied to research.
Suddenly their views shifted from fearing the virus might be manufactured to dismissing such possibilities, despite lack of fresh data or firm evidence.
After the discussion, Farrar privately admitted he was still “50:50” on the cause – yet at the same time oversaw and “tidied up” an influential statement in Nature Medicine, stating that the authors “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”.
Weirdly, his work was not credited. Four days later, he condemned “Wild West” research in Wuhan in an email to Fauci and the head of the big US funding body. Yet he signed – with two Wellcome Trust colleagues – an infamous Lancet statement that condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. It was later found to have been covertly organised by British scientist Peter Daszak, a collaborator with Wuhan’s top bat researcher.
Other disconcerting inconsistencies and activities have emerged in this unedifying saga. The key in such a process is transparency and to keep an open mind until evidence dictates otherwise. Instead, whatever Covid’s cause, we see glimpses in released emails and redacted documents of something sinister: an attempt by top Western scientists and funding bodies to shut down debate.
A report last week by House Republicans claimed US intelligence is also withholding important information from “the American public and the world”. Perhaps we should be glad the Wellcome Trust can start to restore its battered brand. But the WHO is further undermining its credibility by handing such an influential post to a man embroiled in allegations of tarnishing the integrity of science on such an important quest.