The professor publicly dismissed the lab leak theory in 2020
The World Health Organisation announced yesterday that Sir Jeremy Farrar will become its new Chief Scientist, beginning the role in Spring 2023. He succeeds Soumya Swaminathan, who stepped down from the position last month.
Currently the Director of the Wellcome Trust, Farrar was previously a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the body chaired by Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty that recommended the use of several lockdowns to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as an appointee to the expert advisory committee for the UK Government’s Vaccine Task Force.
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In the early weeks of the pandemic Farrar, a former professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, wrote on Twitter, “China is setting a new standard for outbreak response and deserves all our thanks.” In February 2020 he was one of 27 scientists to publish a statement condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. A paper in Nature Medicine, written by a group of professionals Farrar had helped to convene, concluded: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
However, in emails sent earlier that month, the scientist expressed doubts about “Wild West” research being carried out in Wuhan, and by extension the idea that the lab leak theory could be easily dismissed. In one missive to Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the US President, Farrar said, “My guess is this will remain grey unless there is access to the Wuhan lab — and I suspect that is unlikely.”
Farrar resigned from his SAGE position in November of last year, having advocated for more stringent measures than the government. He has since claimed that we have “moved on too quickly” from Covid, and fears that there is a “non-zero” risk that the virus could mutate into a more serious disease.
The Wellcome Trust has a financial endowment of £38 billion, up from £15 billion in 2013 when Farrar joined as Director, making it Europe’s biggest philanthropic research funding body. The charity has pledged to spend £16 billion by 2032 to “advance scientific discovery and take on the world’s most urgent health issues”. Having developed the foundation significantly during his time there, Farrar now moves to the WHO, where he has previously chaired vaccine committees.
An outspoken figure during the coronavirus pandemic, and initially a vehement public opponent of calls to investigate a possible laboratory origin for the virus, Farrar’s appointment to such a senior position at the UN body is unlikely to be universally welcomed, regardless of his private reservations. Whether he will now more readily consider dissenting voices on medical issues is bound to be a matter of great interest to observers around the world.