The end of the Enlightenment (Laura Lezza/Getty Images)


March 11, 2023   8 mins

The departing director of the world’s second biggest philanthropic donor and one of the most influential funders of scientific research was doing his best to sound noble. In an interview marking his departure from the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar was talking about the failures of political leaders, the threats of “zoonotic” diseases spilling over from animals to humans, the importance of scientists helping to shape the future, and how experts must speak out to prevent “conspiracy theories” being “amplified”.

Here was a prominent figure dedicated to the role of science in solving global problems — even if he did display flashes of the egotism that led him to serve on the Sage advisory body during the pandemic and then quit to rush out a book lamenting other people’s failures.

“If we do revert to a lack of evidence, a lack of information — if we’re going back to the era where we’re just making policies up with no evidence behind them, the world is in a worse place. And we’re moving away from an era of sort of 20th, 21st-first century enlightenment to something darker,’ he concluded with a flourish. ‘We can’t let that happen.”

Who could argue with the need for evidence-based science and the unfettered flow of information to help make the world a better place? It was no surprise, however, Farrar chose The Guardian for his valedictory interview as he heads to Geneva for a new post as chief scientist of the World Health Organization. For this ensured there would be no challenging questions over his central — and profoundly anti-science — role in stifling debate on the pandemic origins and effectively pushing his own conspiracy, cooked up with a handful of influential colleagues, including Anthony Fauci in the US, which suggested any idea that Covid might have emerged from some kind of laboratory incident in Wuhan was crackers.

Never mind all the evidence that has emerged showing how members of a group of experts that Farrar marshalled to squash the lab-leak hypothesis harboured their own doubts over the disease emerging naturally, based on its location and unusual properties. Let alone his own initial fears on this vexatious issue — or indeed, his recently-revealed verdict on high-risk experiments on coronaviruses being carried out in low bio-security laboratories in Wuhan as “Wild West” research. Instead, his interviewer, a long-serving health reporter, dutifully told her readers that “Farrar’s position is that while it is likely to have come from animals, it is important to stay open-minded and gather evidence. Above all, we need transparency, he says.”

This is, sadly, typical of the pitiful reporting seen on this particular issue from The Guardian. Presumably this continuing failure is a legacy of the media group’s reaction to Donald Trump’s promotion of the possibility of a lab leak, a response shared with The New York Times. The Guardian, however, even allowed British scientist Peter Daszak to publish an article headlined “Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab” without disclosing his organisation’s financial and research links to Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) until forced into hasty clarification. Farrar, incidentally, promoted this risible piece on Twitter: “As always worth reading @PeterDaszak”.

Yet The Guardian was far from alone; almost all Western media failed in their duty to challenge powerful players and vested interests on the crucial issue of the pandemic origins. Patsy journalists churned out reports fed to them by prominent scientists that dismissed “conspiracy theories” about a possible lab leak, placing more faith in a brutally-repressive Chinese dictatorship than an elected US government. They kept pointing to an animal market in Wuhan as the most likely source of SARS-CoV-2, a theory dismissed even by the Chinese authorities and despite obvious flaws in this argument given earliest cases. Ultimately, much of the media ended up presenting a collective idea that there was settled consensus, sweeping aside the voices of bravely-dissenting scientists.

Farrar was at the centre of this deceptive web, spinning lines to impede unfettered debate on the origins of the biggest public health crisis for a century. Along with two of his Wellcome Trust colleagues, he joined 24 other scientists to sign a key letter in The Lancet journal sycophantically praising Chinese experts for their “rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data” and hitting out at “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. It was later discovered to have been covertly organised by Daszak, who had spent years working with his friend Shi Zhengli, the celebrated lead researcher into bat coronaviruses at WIV.

Farrar also hosted a conference call on the first day of February 2020 at the behest of former presidential adviser Fauci. They were joined by Francis Collins, then head of the biggest US science funding body, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, and at least 10 other experts. We know now that several taking part held concerns over the virus being engineered. Even after the call, Farrar admitted he was “50:50” on whether it came from a lab. Yet he oversaw the near-instant drafting by four participants and one other author of “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, another hugely-influential article published by Nature Medicine stating firmly that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”.

Dr Robert Redfield, an eminent virologist who led the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the outbreak began in 2020, has long feared Covid resulted from a lab leak. Now his suspicions are backed by two US intelligence agencies. FBI chief Christopher Wray admitted last week they have “for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident”. Yet Redfield told a congressional committee hearing into the virus’s origins this week that he was deliberately “sidelined” by the likes of Fauci and Farrar: “It was told to me that they wanted a single narrative, and that I obviously had a different point of view. Science has debate and they squashed any debate.”

Redfield’s written submission to the committee rightly argued that both theories on the origins “needed to be aggressively and thoroughly examined” — although his own view “indicates Covid-19 infections more likely were the result of an accidental lab leak than the result of a natural spillover event”. This conclusion, he explained, was “ based primarily on the biology of the virus itself, including its rapid high infectivity for human to human transmission
 as well as a number of other important factors to include the unusual actions in and around Wuhan in the fall of 2019”.

Many other experts disagree. This is how science works: through the clash of ideas and rooting out of evidence to test theories. Yet Redfield told investigative journalist Paul Thacker last year that he believed Fauci and Collins used their political power in the scientific community to set the narrative and exclude dissident voices such as his own, using Farrar as “the front person”. He claimed The Lancet statement, as well as the Nature Medicine missive, “was orchestrated by Jeremy Farrar — I think under direction of Fauci and Collins, trying to nip any attempt to have an honest investigation of the pandemic’s origin”.

This is incredibly damning: these two documents were the most influential papers on the pandemic’s origins — accessed by millions, widely shared, heavily quoted and even used by social media to suppress publication of “conspiracies”. Meanwhile, Farrar pointed to the Nature Medicine statement when questioned on his belief that natural transmission was the most likely cause of the pandemic. “Jeremy’s belief is that the Nature Medicine research paper remains the most important research on the genomic epidemiology of the origins of this virus to date,’ his spokeswoman told me in June 2021.

Prior to this week’s hearing, Republicans on the committee issued a sharp memo asking why Farrar’s work on the Nature Medicine paper — which his spokeswoman confessed to me he had helped to “convene” although it now emerges he made at least one edit to toughen its tone — was uncredited by the journal. A fair question. They also quoted an email from lead author Kristian Andersen dated February 8 — eight days after that secretive conference call — to German participant Christian Drosten, which admitted “our main work over the last couple of weeks has been focused on trying to disprove any type of lab theory”.

Yet before the conference call, Anderson was “60-70%” convinced the virus came from a lab, according to Farrar’s book, alarmed by properties such as its receptor binding domain which “looked.. like a perfect key for entering human cells”, and the infamous furin cleavage site, which allows more efficient entry into human cells and is not found on similar types of coronaviruses.

Concerns have grown after it was discovered EcoHealth Alliance, the group run by Daszak that funnelled US funding to support research at WIV, sought a grant in 2018 from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency proposing to insert a furin cleavage site into SARS-like bat coronaviruses to assess their ability to infect cells. The bid was declined, due to the risks. Daszak insists the collaborators have not pursued the research to his knowledge. But who knows exactly what really went on in those Wuhan labs given the stonewalling of outside inquiries? They could have continued the work with other funds for all we know.

Let me state again with absolute clarity: we do not know the pandemic’s cause. It might have been through natural transmission. Or it might be the legacy of some kind of unfortunate laboratory incident. There is no hard proof for either theory, despite intense efforts to find an intermediate species of animal that might have “amplified” a bat virus to spill over into humans. Yet it was foolish to ignore that SARS-CoV-2 erupted 1,000 kilometres from the closest colonies of wild bats with similar coronaviruses. And in a city that was home to China’s only maximum bio-security laboratory — especially when WIV held the biggest repository of bat viruses in Asia, had known safety concerns, suddenly took its virus databases offline weeks before the pandemic emerged, and was carrying out risky gain-of-function research to boost infectivity of mutant bat viruses in humanised mice.

Whatever the origins, it seems alarmingly clear that a group of influential scientists, empowered by holding the purse strings for research, set out to deliberately stifle debate over the birth of a pandemic that has caused such devastation — often while saying that we must “follow the science” and despite their own early concerns over risky research in Wuhan and the virus’s strange properties. They pushed the toxic notion that anyone asking valid questions was inflaming conspiracy theorists and backing “implausible” ideas — and were aided by weak politicians, supine journalists and complicit science journals. Such was the influence of these funding behemoths, they set the tone across Europe. This was the real Covid conspiracy.

We can only guess why they adopted such a stance, although I suspect it was through misguided desire to protect both science and some of their own reputations having backed gain-of-function research. Regardless, their stupidity risks harming their profession through sinister efforts to crush free debate, a doctrine that lies at the root of scientific advancement. Sadly, all those journalists who failed to do their job of challenging powerful players and vested interests have also undermined my own profession again. This should provoke soul-searching, especially on the Left, over allowing partisanship to override fearless interrogation of important issues.

We can, however, now see the reason for the shameful silence in Westminster and Whitehall following the furore over former health secretary Matt Hancock’s leaked WhatsApp messages. These reveal how the Government argued behind the scenes that the outbreak’s location was “entirely coincidental” and that any discussion of a possible lab leak risked “damaging national security”. So our bureaucrats, politicians and spooks put their desire to appease a Communist dictatorship in China above the global quest to discover the truth about the pandemic origins, which might help us to prevent subsequent health disasters. No wonder my Freedom of Information requests on this issue have been stymied in both London and Edinburgh.

These inquiries still have some distance to travel, although slowly but surely the truth is emerging. “Recently released unredacted email messages make it clear that in early 2020 science funding heads Fauci, Collins and Farrar were informed by Anderson and three others that the genome sequence of Sars-Cov-2 raised the possibility that it was a laboratory product. The funding agency heads told them this threatened “great potential harm to science and international harmony”. The four scientists, following their paymasters’ lead, published a commentary in a journal falsely affirming that science ruled out the possibility of laboratory origins. “This false narrative still colours discussion, having dominated the debate for a year,” said the biosafety expert Richard Ebright, professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University.

But this begs a question: how can Farrar, having corroded the brand of one of our nation’s finest institutions and played such a role in promoting this narrative, now be handed the influential role of chief scientist at the WHO? “In this context, the appointment is a major error,” says Ebright rightly. This is another disastrous own goal by a UN body that has performed so badly in the pandemic from the earliest days. This post, arguably the most influential scientific role in the world, has been given to a figure who was at the epicentre of spinning a web of deception that stifled scientific probing of the first global pandemic for a century. It suggests that we are sliding from an era of enlightenment to something darker — and as Farrar says, we can’t let this happen.


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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