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Covid origins: Wuhan lab leak theory resurfaces as Dr Anthony Fauci’s emails are released to US oversight committee

What is slowly becoming clear is that a host of top scientists chose to dismiss the lab leak theory for political and funding reasons, rather than scientific ones.

January 16, 2022 / 02:15 PM IST
The idea that the Covid virus leaked from a lab might have also hurt funding prospects for scientists working on gain-of-function research globally. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

The idea that the Covid virus leaked from a lab might have also hurt funding prospects for scientists working on gain-of-function research globally. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

Last week, there were some interesting revelations about events in the early days of Covid. After repeated requests, the government granted access to the US Republican House Oversight Committee to a number of emails between Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the most prominent face in the world’s fight against the pandemic, and other scientists and immunologists dating back to February 2020. According to this new information, the theory that the virus may have been an accidental lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) seems to be have been hastily quashed by US health officials for the sake of “international harmony”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, 2020, and a pandemic on March 11, 2020.

On February 2, 2020, Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the British medical charity foundation Wellcome Trust and adviser to the UK government, sent a mail to Dr Fauci and Dr Francis Collins, then director of the US National Institutes of Health. He referred to the virus research being carried out at WIV and quoted research by experts, including Professor Mike Farzan, who first discovered how the original SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus binds to human cells. These experts had concluded that the virus could not have evolved naturally.

Sir Jeremy wrote that a “likely explanation” could be that WIV “accidentally (created) a virus that would be primed for rapid transmission between humans”.  He went on: “So, I think it becomes a question of how do you put all this together, whether you believe in this series of coincidences, what you know of the lab in Wuhan, how much could be in nature—accidental release or natural event?” He said that he believed it was a 60-70% probability that it had been an accidental lab leak.

Dr Collins replied: “I am coming around to the view that a natural origin is more likely.” He asked for “a swift convening of experts in a confidence inspiring framework…or the voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate, doing great potential harm to science and international harmony”.

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A conference call between Dr Fauci, Dr Collins, Sir Jeremy and some other scientists seems to have taken place on February 4. Interestingly enough, later that day, Sir Jeremy downgraded his estimate to 50:50 in his emails. Some days later, along with 26 other experts, he signed an open letter that was published in the medical journal Lancet, denouncing the theory that Covid did not arise naturally as a “conspiracy” and proclaiming “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China”.

What was not revealed by The Lancet was that Dr Peter Daszak, one of the signatories and in fact the man who organised the letter, had been involved with the Wuhan lab for 15 years. It was only 16 months later, in July 2021, long after Dr Daszak’s affiliations had come to light, that The Lancet admitted that Dr Daszak had significant conflicts of interest as far as Covid and WIV were concerned.

In April 2020, Dr Daszak emailed Dr Fauci, thanking him for supporting the theory that the virus jumped from animals to humans and was not the result of a lab leak. Some time later, it came to light that Dr Daszak’s medical research outfit EcoHealth Alliance had received substantial grants from the Fauci-headed NIAID for gain-of-function research, which tries to create deadlier or more contagious viruses, or both. Some of these funds—US taxpayers’ money—was channelled by EcoHealth to WIV for research on bat viruses. Covid has been traced back to bat viruses.

Dr Daszak was a member of the WHO team sent to China to investigate the origin of the virus. China stonewalled requests for lab data and records. However, the WHO team still concluded that the possibility of the virus spreading due to a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”.

Also read: How did COVID-19 originate? WHO experts have these theories

There seem to be many coincidences in this story. The released emails appear to indicate that gain-of-function researchers pushed back heavily against those who thought that the lab leak theory was plausible. But the reasons for the pushback seem to have had little to do with any scientific evidence. For instance, Dutch scientist Dr Ron Fouchier, who has led substantial gain-of-function research on the bird flu virus, said: “Further debate about such accusations would unnecessarily distract top researchers from their active duties and do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular.” These words are significant—that investigation into the roots of Covid served no useful purpose.

It was absolutely in the gain-of-function scientists’ career interests to quickly discredit the lab leak theory. If the theory gained credence, future grants for their research may have dried up. Dr Daszak, too, had enough reasons to lead the campaign against the lab leak theory while hiding his deep links with bat virus work at WIV. Other virologists closed ranks to protect their brethren.

Dr Fauci did not voluntarily reveal the facts about his funding of Dr Daszak’s organisation and consequently WIV. This would have caused public outrage, since it was now known that WIV had worked with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on coronavirus research. Dr Fauci’s involvement was discovered and made public by Republican senator Rand Paul.

What is slowly becoming clear is that a host of top scientists chose to dismiss the lab leak theory for political and funding reasons, rather than scientific ones. Is that very ethical? As things currently stand, the theory remains plausible but may never be proved conclusively. The official investigation by US intelligence agencies, too, ended with a “we can’t figure it out” report. This may also have pleased the US government—any acceptance of the lab leak theory gives a huge boost to Donald Trump who has been blaming the Chinese authorities for the pandemic from Day 1.

It seems to be in the interests of many powerful groups and entities that the origins of the pandemic stay shrouded in mystery.

Sandipan Deb is an independent writer. Views are personal.