March 13, 2023 - 2:15pm

Anthony Fauci — America’s recently retired Covid supremo — has played an influential role in the debate over the how the pandemic started. Though he’s previously claimed to have an open mind as to the possibilities, his past statements have leaned strongly in favour of a natural origin for the virus. 

However, in an interview with CNN over the weekend, Fauci appears to be more open-minded than ever — as well he might be, given that some parts of the US Government now believe that a leak from a laboratory is the likeliest explanation. However, he’s still not confronting this possibility with the gravity it demands. 

In the interview, Jim Acosta asks him about the likelihood that a lab leak was to blame. “That’s a very good question, Jim,” Fauci replies. The same can’t be said for the way he frames his answer. 

He begins by suggesting that “one of the things that people maybe don’t fully appreciate is that all of the intelligence agencies unanimously agree that this was not engineered” — by which he means it was not engineered as a “bio-weapon”. However, no serious person is suggesting this. Covid-19 would be useless on the battlefield — given its comparatively mild effects on most fighting-age adults.

Having opened with a true but irrelevant statement, Fauci then addresses a more pertinent scenario: that “a lab leak could be that someone was out in the wild, maybe looking for different types of viruses in bats, got infected, went into a lab, and was being studied in a lab, and then it came out of the lab.” And yet, having allowed for that possibility, he claims this is “still a natural occurrence”.

Really? Fauci doesn’t specify where the virus would have come from in his scenario nor the location of the lab. But a plausible sequence of events — the transportation of a viral sample or an infected person from a remote jungle to a lab situated in a well-connected mega-city like Wuhan — would be anything but a “natural occurrence”. For the virus to escape in this context would be a catastrophic failure of biosecurity. 

What would make such a breach even worse is if the virus had been engineered into a form that does not occur in nature. To conduct such research (for medical purposes) and then allow a leak would be world-changingly irresponsible. So does Fauci address this scenario? He does, briefly: “the other possibility is that someone takes a virus from the environment that doesn’t actually spread very well in humans and manipulates it a bit and accidentally it escapes”. 

What is Fauci saying here? If he means taking a coronavirus — i.e. one related to viruses that have already caused deadly disease outbreaks — and making it more dangerous, then this cannot be adequately described as manipulating it “a bit”.

Fauci concludes by stating that there’s been no previous case of a lab leak causing a pandemic — and, as far as we know, that’s true. However, that doesn’t mean that an engineered coronavirus couldn’t cause a pandemic. After all, SARS-CoV-2 did cause a pandemic; coronaviruses can be engineered to be more dangerous; and dangerous organisms have escaped from labs. The possibility that all three of these things happened together should be taken with the utmost seriousness. It should certainly not be downplayed. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.