The search for Covid's origin continues. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images


July 28, 2023   9 mins

“What happened to Oppenheimer damaged our ability as a society to debate honestly about scientific theory,” wrote Kai Bird, author of the biography on which Christopher Nolan’s new film is based. “Yet too many of our citizens still distrust scientists and fail to understand the scientific quest, the trial and error inherent in testing any theory against facts by experimenting. Just look at what happened to our public health civil servants during the recent pandemic.”

Bird is right about the need for faith in scientists as we hurtle into a technological revolution based on artificial intelligence — and indeed, to point out how their efforts depend on rigorous testing of theories with facts. Unfortunately, the behaviour of a few key scientific figures in the pandemic, seemingly desperate to appease China and protect their ties to high-risk research, has done the precise opposite.

This is, one prominent US biologist told me, “the biggest scientific scandal of our lifetime”, involving a deliberate attempt to suppress debate on a health catastrophe that killed almost 15 million people in two years. It revolves around a landmark commentary in Nature Medicine stating firmly that the five authors “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. This was published in March 2020 — barely six weeks after the stumbling World Health Organization had declared an international emergency.

Now, hundreds of private messages between four of these five scientists, exchanged as they wrote and published this article, have emerged — and they are astonishing. The “super secret” discussions show this arrogant quartet boasting about success, misleading the media, sneering at journalists and making fun of other experts, even a world-renowned epidemiologist co-opted as the fifth author. They condemn China “for trying to rewrite what happened” and disclose Beijing sequenced the genome for SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes Covid — just before the rest of the world discovered from a Taiwanese tip-off that the disease had erupted in Wuhan.

Most significantly, these discussions on Slack expose the quartet’s deep fears that Sars-CoV-2 could have been tied to laboratory research — along with overt signs of pressure from “higher ups” to squash such suggestions. Clearly these scientists were concerned the disease was engineered. They dismiss the well-worn theory about the virus arising in a Wuhan animal market on several occasions, one calling it a “red herring”. Yet they abruptly switched direction in public despite the lack of discernible new evidence. They carried on debating their suspicions in private after the article’s publication — even as they attacked claims about a possible lab leak in public and their statement was used to condemn such “conspiracy theories”.

“Let’s face it, unless there is a whistleblower from the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] who is going to defect and live in the West under a new identity we are NEVER going to know what happened in the lab,” wrote Eddie Holmes, a British virologist based in Australia with strong contacts in China, at one point a month after publication. “That’s my thinking too,” responded lead author Kristian Andersen, a Danish evolutionary biologist — although he admitted that he was “worried” US diplomatic cables showing concerns over biosecurity in Wuhan, which had been disclosed by The Washington Post, “might have something”.

It is hard to overstate the influence of this single article, accessed almost six million times and cited by 5,942 other specialist papers. The journal’s editor João Monteiro tweeted out a link saying: “Let’s put conspiracy theories about the origin of #SARSCoV2 to rest and help to stop spread of misinformation.” China’s ministry of foreign affairs welcomed its “evidence” — as did the Communist Party chief at WIV. It was highlighted in the White House by Anthony Fauci, the US infectious diseases expert and adviser to several presidents. Sir Jeremy Farrar, now the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, told me it was “the most important research on the genomic epidemiology of the origins of this virus” more than one year later as he insisted “no scientific evidence I have seen to date points to outbreak linked to a laboratory”.

It subsequently emerged through leaks and freedom of information requests that this pair, along with Francis Collins, head of the biggest US science funding body, were involved behind the scenes in the article. Farrar, then director of the Wellcome Trust, was tasked with hosting a teleconference on February 1 involving the five authors and six other experts including Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser until three months ago. After the call, Farrar confessed he was “50:50” on whether Covid came from a lab — and later was found to have told Collins that Wuhan engaged in “Wild West” research practices. His office admitted to me eventually, after a barrage of emails, that he helped “convene” the Nature Medicine authors.

As Vallance once wrote in another science journal, “inferences should be drawn from attempts to hide interactions”. Unfortunately, the lab leak theory was snarled in tribal politics after it was flagged by Donald Trump, creating a toxic climate for those of us probing the origins in the pandemic’s early days. Now, this article is at the centre of a House subcommittee investigation after Republicans summoned the two US-based authors — Andersen and Bob Garry, a microbiologist in New Orleans — to answer questions earlier this month on their deliberations. Afterwards, the cache of documents and messages were detected in the committee papers and on its website by members of Drastic, a group of independent researchers that has uncovered many key nuggets in this quest for the truth about a deadly disease.

Andersen set up what he called the “super secret” Slack group under the intriguing original name of “project-wuhan-engineering” with Holmes and Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at Edinburgh University, on the day of the teleconference. Farrar, portrayed as a driving force behind the paper, urged everyone to keep their deliberations confidential in that first discussion. A few days later, he signed a letter with two Wellcome Trust colleagues in The Lancet journal hitting out at “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, who runs a body that funnelled substantial US funding for research into bat coronaviruses to WIV.

The Dane declared to his colleagues that the question they needed to answer was whether Covid emerged due to “evolution or engineering” since both were “really rather plausible” — as remains the case today. Andersen added that Garry would not want the virus to have arisen from “GOF escape” — a reference to controversial Gain of Function research, which boosts the infectivity of viruses and was banned for four years in the US. “The main thing still in my mind is that the lab escape version of this is so friggin’ likely to have happened because they were already doing this type of work and the molecular data is fully consistent with that scenario,” he said.

The fact they were discussing the concept of a lab leak “shows how plausible it is”, added Rambaut the next day. But the Scottish-based expert urged them to change tack. “I personally think we should get away from all the strange coincidence stuff. I agree it smells really fishy but without a smoking gun it will not do us any good,” he wrote. “The truth is never going to come out (if [lab] escape is the truth). Would need to be irrefutable evidence. My position is that natural evolution is entirely plausible and we will have to leave it at that. Lab passaging might also generate this mutation but we have no evidence that that happened.”

Rambaut said revealingly that due to “the shit show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is we should say given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content with ascribing it to natural processes”. Andersen responded that he agreed this was “a very reasonable conclusion” despite hating “when politics is injected into science”. And this seemed to become their eventual template.

Much of their subsequent discussion, interspersed with banter, is technical. They discuss RaTG13, the closest known relative to Sars-Cov-2 that was collected by scientists at WIV from a mine hundreds of miles from Wuhan and is linked to the deaths from a mysterious Covid-like respiratory virus of three miners clearing bat guano from a cave. They puzzle over the infamous furin cleavage site, which allows more efficient entry into human cells and is not found on similar types of coronaviruses. “Bob [Garry] said the insertion was the 1st thing he would add,” wrote Holmes. “Yeah,” responded Andersen. “The furin site would be the first thing to add for sure.”

Garry even explains at one point how easy it would be — even for a graduate student — to make such a virus by inserting a furin cleavage site into a bat virus such as RaTG13 in cell culture. “It’s not crackpot to suggest this could have happened given the GoF research we know is happening,” he adds.

Justin Kinney, a quantitative biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and co-founder of the advocacy group Biosafety Now, said he was struck by how strongly the Slack messages made the case for a laboratory origin for Covid. He pointed to a decade-old paper shared among the quartet detailing experiments on bovine coronaviruses, which found that when inserted in different human cells they developed a strikingly similar furin cleavage site. Kinney claims knowledge of this paper flew in the face of their claim in Nature Medicine that such cleavage sites had only been observed after prolonged experiments on avian flu. “Bovine coronavirus is much more closely related and this took place after minimal passage in cell culture,” he said.

The discussions show how Farrar strengthened one key phrase — and that the force of their entire argument was beefed up after an initial draft was rejected by Nature, a more prestigious journal. Last month, Garry admitted to a BBC podcast “maybe we went a little too far” by taking such a strident position. Kinney, who wants the paper to be retracted, believes they succumbed to the intensity of pressure from a variety of directions, including from funders with the cash and power to determine the future of their careers — and that this cover-up could have disastrous consequences for their profession. “Science must be honest,” he said. “The logic in the paper is so weak, the conflicts of interest are not revealed and it now seems clear that the authors did not fully believe their own claims.”

Emails show the team consulted with Ron Fouchier, a Dutch scientist who pushed the boundaries of Gain of Function work with experiments on avian flu. “Molecular biologists like myself can generate perfect copies of viruses without leaving a trace,” he told them baldly. There is also mention of “intel” in the background — and at one point, members of the quartet accuse “Ron” of leaking details of their activities to a journalist.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of these revelations is how their private debate over the origins carried on after publication of their seismic statement. The March article stated that their “analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. Yet Andersen wrote on 16 April that he was “still not fully convinced that no culture was involved”. When Holmes pushed back, warning such fears could lead to an end of Gain of Function research, the Danish biologist replied that the top bat researcher at WIV was carrying out “a lot of work that involved isolating and culturing SARS-like viruses in BSL 2” — a reference to the sort of low-level biosecurity comparable to that found in a dental surgery. He linked to four papers on this “concerning work”. And he said again the next day that “we can’t fully disprove [cell] culture
 we also can’t fully rule out engineering”.

Later that month, this same scientist told a journalist that the odds of Covid’s accidental release in Wuhan were “a million to one”. And he told those politicians that after considering all the evidence, their group concluded that “culturing” — which can make a virus more infectious and better-adapted for human transmission — had not occurred since the virus most likely spilled over naturally from wildlife. “By the time we published our final version of Proximal Origin I no longer believed that a culturing scenario was plausible,” he stated in written evidence. The evidence now seems to challenge this pivotal claim to Congress.

Andersen claimed they reached this conclusion through scientific inquiry rather than under pressure from Fauci or other funders. Yet he told the others at the outset “it’s well above my pay grade to call the shots on a final conclusion”. The messages show that just before the paper was submitted for publication it was shared with Farrar and Collins, at the time heads of the two most significant funding bodies in Western science. They were “very happy”, reported back Holmes. Coincidentally, Andersen works at Scripps Research in California, a non-profit lab given $8.9 million for work on infectious disease outbreaks from the grant body headed by Collins five months after the statement’s publication — although he insisted to the Congressional subcommittee that this funding decision was agreed before the pandemic.

We still do not know for sure the origins of that destructive pandemic. But we do know it was an extraordinary coincidence that Covid emerged in the Chinese city containing the biggest repository of bat coronaviruses in Asia, a place with known safety concerns conducting high-risk research to boost the infectivity of mutant bat viruses in humanised mice. We know China covered up the outbreak, hid key data, lied to other countries and refused to allow proper investigation. And we know that accidents and human error can occur during research. So as Andersen said to his pals, the possibility of some kind of lab incident was “friggin’ likely”.

It looks beyond doubt that Beijing’s cover-up was aided by an outrageous attempt to suppress global debate, led by the Western scientists we should have been able to trust to search for the truth and guide an unshackled debate based on hard facts. They were assisted by patsy politicians, supine journalists and complicit scientific publications. This murky affair appears to be the most terrible betrayal of science — and indeed of democracy — that was far darker and more disturbing than those sinister events that felled Oppenheimer seven decades ago.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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