There has been renewed interest in the origins of Covid and the lab leak theory this week following the release of further emails between senior U.S. Government health official Dr. Anthony Fauci and others as they conspired in early February 2020 to counter the theory and suppress it.
The first thing to note is that the emails confirm that those involved – Fauci, Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust and CEPI, U.K. Chief Scientist Patrick Vallance, Kristian Andersen from Scripps, Germany’s Christian Drosten and more – were not aware prior to late January that the virus was likely to be of lab origin. The question appears to be raised with Fauci by Kristian Andersen via Jeremy Farrar on January 31st 2020. Fauci responds that a group of evolutionary biologists should get together “as soon as possible” to examine the data carefully and that “if everyone agrees with this concern, they should report it to the appropriate authorities”. Notably, Fauci does not seem to know who that is, but says he “would imagine that in the USA this would be the FBI and in the U.K. it would be MI5”. There is no indication here of cover-up instructions having previously been received.
On February 2nd, Fauci writes that, “like all of us, I do not know how this evolved”, and Farrar writes, “on a spectrum if 0 is nature and 100 is release – I am honestly at 50”. On February 4th, Farrar clarifies that in his view it’s “probably not” engineered but it might have come from lab work in other ways:
“Engineered” probably not. Remains very real possibility of accidental lab passage in animals to give glycans… Eddie [Edward Holmes] would be 60:40 lab side. I remain 50:50…
Christian Drosten, on February 9th, wonders where the idea came from in the first place: “Who came up with this story in the beginning? Are we working on debunking our own conspiracy theory?” He adds that he thought the aim of their discussions was to challenge a “certain theory”: “Didn’t we congregate to challenge a certain theory, and if we could, drop it?” The “certain theory” is understood by the others to be the linking of the virus to HIV as found in a January 2020 pre-print.
Drosten’s questions are quickly answered by other group members. Edward Holmes explains what their group is up to (which, for context, follows the appearance of new data from pangolins):
I don’t know where this story came from, but it has nothing whatsoever to do [with] the HIV nonsense. Please don’t associate this with that. This is a broader story.
Ever since this outbreak started there have [been] suggestions that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab, if only because of the coincidence of where the outbreak occurred and the location of the lab. I do a lot of work in China and I can [tell] you that a lot of people there believe this and believe they are being lied to. Things were made worse when Wuhan lab published the bat virus sequence – a bat sampled in a different province for which they have a large collection of samples.
I believe the aim/question here is whether we, as scientists, should try to write something balanced on the science behind this? There are argument for and against doing this.
Personally, with the pangolin virus possessing 6/6 key sites in the receptor binding domain, I am in favour of the natural evolution theory.
Farrar explains further:
The theory of the origin of the [virus] has gathered considerable momentum not in social media, but increasingly among some scientists, in main stream media, and among politicians.
The aim of this was to bring a neutral, respected, scientific group together to look at the data and in a neutral, considered way provide an opinion and we hoped to focus the discussion on the science, not on any conspiracy other theory and to lay down a respected statement to frame whatever debate goes on – before that debate gets out of hand with potentially hugely damaging ramifications.
With the additional information on the pangolin virus, information not available even 24 hours ago, I think the argument is even clearer.
My preference is that a carefully considered piece of science, early in the public domain, will help mitigate more polarised debate. If not, that debate will increasingly happen and science will be reacting to it. Not a good position to be in.
Kristian Andersen does acknowledge though that they have been “trying to disprove any type of lab theory”:
Our main work over the last couple of weeks has been focused on trying to disprove any type of lab theory, but we are at a crossroad where the scientific evidence isn’t conclusive enough to say that we have high confidence in any of the three main theories considered.
Until the pangolin sequences showed up, the consensus in the emails was settling on the proposal that while the virus didn’t appear deliberately engineered it could have resulted from “repeated tissue culture passage” in a lab. While Francis Collins argues this “doesn’t explain the O-linked glycans” which typically emerge in the presence of an immune system, Holmes said, as per the email above, it was possible for “accidental lab passage in animals to give glycans”.
Patrick Vallance, for one, was glad to hear that the pangolin sequences would likely counter the “passage origin”:
Thanks for sharing and thanks to those involved for a really important piece of work. I think this looks pretty balanced and useful. I do think it would be helpful to make sure that the sequence data from the pangolins is included and to indicate what that might mean in terms of a potential prolonged period of adaptation in animals. The glycan point is important and could be given further weight against a passage origin. Once complete I think it would be helpful to publish this.
The eventual outcome of this discussion was the “Proximal Origins” paper in Nature on March 17th 2020. The final paper largely reflects the prior deliberations, though the earlier assessments of a preference for the lab origin are gone, which the authors would presumably attribute to the arrival of the pangolin sequences. (For the case for the virus being engineered see here; for the case for a lab origin (whether or not engineered) see here; for the problem with the pangolin sequences see here.)
Notably omitted from the published paper are the mentions that research to alter SARS-like bat coronaviruses had been taking place for many years in Wuhan at low biosecurity levels (i.e., BSL-2). Andersen noted on February 8th that “passage of SARS-like CoVs have been ongoing for several years, and more specifically in Wuhan under BSL-2 conditions”. While Andersen’s point seems to be that there was nothing new about this, so no reason to think it was suddenly the cause of a pandemic, equally others would note that it is clearly an accident waiting to happen. Also, who knows how many times it had happened before, but with viruses that just didn’t get very far or do very much?
The scientists are upfront that they are motivated to prevent, to quote Farrar, “hugely damaging ramifications”, by which they appear to mean to themselves as implicated in this research and to the wider field of biodefence virus research.
This sentiment of not wanting to open the ‘can of worms’ of the virus turning out to arise from U.S.-linked virus research is common to the wider biodefence network of the U.S. and its allies. In a June 2021 article in Vanity Fair, we find it cropping up to frustrate investigations of the virus origins again and again.
A months long Vanity Fair investigation, interviews with more than 40 people, and a review of hundreds of pages of U.S. Government documents, including internal memos, meeting minutes, and email correspondence, found that conflicts of interest, stemming in part from large government grants supporting controversial virology research, hampered the U.S. investigation into COVID-19’s origin at every step. In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese Government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. Government funding of it.
In an internal memo obtained by Vanity Fair, Thomas DiNanno, former Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, wrote that staff from two bureaus, his own and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, “warned” leaders within his bureau “not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19” because it would “‘open a can of worms’ if it continued.”
Christopher Park, Director of the State Department’s Biological Policy Staff in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, was one among many who transmitted such warnings.
Park, who in 2017 had been involved in lifting a U.S. Government moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research, was not the only official to warn the State Department investigators against digging in sensitive places. As the [State Department] group probed the lab-leak scenario, among other possibilities, its members were repeatedly advised not to open a “Pandora’s box”, said four former State Department officials interviewed by Vanity Fair. The admonitions “smelled like a cover-up”, said Thomas DiNanno, “and I wasn’t going to be part of it”.
The Vanity Fair article makes clear China was also blatantly covering it up, and that U.S. CDC Director Robert Redfield was instantly suspicious.
On January 3rd 2020, Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, got a phone call from his counterpart Dr. George Fu Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Gao described the appearance of a mysterious new pneumonia, apparently limited to people exposed at a market in Wuhan. Redfield immediately offered to send a team of specialists to help investigate.
But when Redfield saw the breakdown of early cases, some of which were family clusters, the market explanation made less sense. Had multiple family members gotten sick via contact with the same animal? Gao assured him there was no human-to-human transmission, says Redfield, who nevertheless urged him to test more widely in the community. That effort prompted a tearful return call. Many cases had nothing to do with the market, Gao admitted. The virus appeared to be jumping from person to person, a far scarier scenario.
Redfield immediately thought of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A team could rule it out as a source of the outbreak in just a few weeks, by testing researchers there for antibodies. Redfield formally reiterated his offer to send specialists, but Chinese officials didn’t respond to his overture.
The intelligence community (IC) of the U.S. and its allies has largely persisted in this cover-up. On April 30th 2020 the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (which at that time was in vacancy) issued a statement that: “The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” On May 5th 2020 CNN reported a briefing from a Five Eyes intelligence source going so far as to back the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) wet market theory.
Intelligence shared among Five Eyes nations indicates it is “highly unlikely” that the coronavirus outbreak was spread as a result of an accident in a laboratory but rather originated in a Chinese market, according to two Western officials who cited an intelligence assessment that appears to contradict claims by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
These intelligence briefings were in direct contradiction to the claim made at the time by President Trump that he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence” COVID-19 originated in a laboratory in Wuhan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that he agreed with Trump’s assessment:
There’s enormous evidence that that’s where this began. We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in Wuhan, China. We took a lot of grief for that from the outside, but I think the whole world can see now… there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.
There was indeed plenty of evidence, but many of those who had access to it were doing their utmost to bury it. The result was that despite Trump and Pompeo’s insistence, and perhaps in part because of it, the lab leak theory was largely left unexamined and unmentioned for the rest of 2020, as media and fact-checkers suppressed it as a ‘conspiracy theory’.
Come August 2021, however, and with a new President in post, U.S. intelligence published a declassified report that summarised current U.S. intelligence on each theory. This report was, however, still strongly skewed towards the natural origins theory. “Most IC analysts assess with low confidence that SARSCoV-2 was not genetically engineered,” it said. Neither was it an ordinary virus that was being used in a lab: “Four IC elements, the National Intelligence Council, and some analysts at elements that are unable to coalesce around either explanation” back the natural origin theory with “low confidence”, it said. It also rejected early spread, saying the first infection probably occurred “no later than November 2019”, with “the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019”. It cursorily dismissed the growing evidence of banked samples testing positive earlier than this, saying they were probably unreliable.
The report also states the IC does not deem China to have been aware of the virus before the end of December.
The IC assesses China’s officials probably did not have foreknowledge that SARS-CoV-2 existed before WIV researchers isolated it after public recognition of the virus in the general population. Accordingly, if the pandemic originated from a laboratory-associated incident, they probably were unaware in the initial months that such an incident had occurred.
What makes these denials of early spread, China’s foreknowledge and lab origin so strange is that they contradict a number of reports from the U.S. intelligence community itself. Indeed, the report notes that one intelligence agency, the NCMI, assessed that it was a lab leak with “moderate confidence”. Why can it see the evidence that the others can’t?
Michael Callahan, whom Robert Malone has described as “arguably the top U.S. Government/CIA expert in both biowarfare and gain of function research”, stated in an interview with National Geographic in August 2020 that he was already following the virus in November 2019 having been tipped off by Chinese colleagues, and that he even travelled to Singapore to study an outbreak of the “mysterious germ” there.
In early January, when the first hazy reports of the new coronavirus outbreak were emerging from Wuhan, China, one American doctor had already been taking notes. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease expert, was working with Chinese colleagues on a longstanding avian flu collaboration in November when they mentioned the appearance of a strange new virus. Soon, he was jetting off to Singapore to see patients there who presented with symptoms of the same mysterious germ.
This makes it clear that both the U.S. and China were aware of the outbreak in November 2019, a detail that agrees with other intelligence reports yet is at odds with the August 2021 declassified report’s statements about the assessments of U.S. intelligence.
The recent Senate report, which is presumably based at least in part on U.S. intelligence, states that the CCP made a major safety intervention at the WIV on November 12th 2019, and that Chinese SARS-CoV-2 vaccine research also appears to have begun at that time. Other media reports quote U.S. intelligence sources stating they became aware of an outbreak in China in November 2019 from observations of health facilities and intercepted communications, and that NATO and the Israeli military were briefed at the end of November.
Interestingly, Michael Callahan himself initially told Robert Malone in early February 2020 that the virus was natural, saying “my people have carefully analysed the sequence, and there is no evidence that this virus was genetically engineered”. But by September 2021, following the release of the declassified intelligence report, he implies he actually thinks the virus came from the Wuhan lab and China is covering it up. Did he change his mind, or did he just start saying what he really thinks?
The picture is increasingly coming into focus. The Chinese Government, Fauci & Co and many within the U.S. intelligence community and biodefence network are covering up the origin of the virus and frustrating efforts to investigate it because they are themselves implicated in the research that likely created it and because they do not want biodefence research discredited. It is not, however, a perfect conspiracy as not all agree: some still push for investigations into the lab leak theory and endorse the theory themselves. Nonetheless, enough in those networks are sufficiently motivated to shut down and frustrate the investigations to make the cover-up largely successful.
Where the self-delusion stops and conscious lying begins is hard to say. The Fauci emails reveal scientists simultaneously assessing evidence ‘objectively’ and aiming at a particular conclusion. They appear to be trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else, and they may well have succeeded in convincing themselves – though that doesn’t make them right. How far they are conscious of deceiving others, and how far they have talked themselves into believing something convenient but false or not fully justified on the evidence, is unclear.
My overall conclusion from these emails and the other evidence is that the high degree of messiness and dissent around the lab leak cover-up indicates it does not come so much as a diktat from on high, or from a Grand Puppet Master, but from a general instinct that permeates the U.S. biodefence network owing to that network being highly compromised on risky virus research.
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