A leaked exchange of private messages among key scientists has shed light on a sinister cover-up regarding Covid’s origin. The quartet, funded by major organisations, misled the public by claiming a natural origin, while privately admitting that the virus could have been developed in a lab. Ian Birrell, in UnHerd, takes a deep dive into a scandal rocking the scientific community. Here’s an excerpt:
“What happened to Oppenheimer damaged our ability as a society to debate honestly about scientific theory,” wrote Kai Bird, author of the biography on which Christopher Nolan’s new film is based. “Yet too many of our citizens still distrust scientists and fail to understand the scientific quest, the trial and error inherent in testing any theory against facts by experimenting. Just look at what happened to our public health civil servants during the recent pandemic.”
Bird is right about the need for faith in scientists as we hurtle into a technological revolution based on artificial intelligence – and indeed, to point out how their efforts depend on rigorous testing of theories with facts. Unfortunately, the behaviour of a few key scientific figures in the pandemic, seemingly desperate to appease China and protect their ties to high-risk research, has done the precise opposite.
This is, one prominent U.S. biologist told me, “the biggest scientific scandal of our lifetime”, involving a deliberate attempt to suppress debate on a health catastrophe that killed almost 15 million people in two years. It revolves around a landmark commentary in Nature Medicine stating firmly that the five authors “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. This was published in March 2020 – barely six weeks after the stumbling World Health Organisation had declared an international emergency.
Now, hundreds of private messages between four of these five scientists, exchanged as they wrote and published this article, have emerged – and they are astonishing. The “super secret” discussions show this arrogant quartet boasting about success, misleading the media, sneering at journalists and making fun of other experts, even a world-renowned epidemiologist co-opted as the fifth author. They condemn China “for trying to rewrite what happened” and disclose Beijing sequenced the genome for SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid – just before the rest of the world discovered from a Taiwanese tip-off that the disease had erupted in Wuhan.
Most significantly, these discussions on Slack expose the quartet’s deep fears that SARS-CoV-2 could have been tied to laboratory research – along with overt signs of pressure from “higher ups” to squash such suggestions. Clearly these scientists were concerned the disease was engineered. They dismiss the well-worn theory about the virus arising in a Wuhan animal market on several occasions, one calling it a “red herring”. Yet they abruptly switched direction in public despite the lack of discernible new evidence. They carried on debating their suspicions in private after the article’s publication – even as they attacked claims about a possible lab leak in public and their statement was used to condemn such “conspiracy theories”.
“Let’s face it, unless there is a whistleblower from the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] who is going to defect and live in the West under a new identity we are NEVER going to know what happened in the lab,” wrote Eddie Holmes, a British virologist based in Australia with strong contacts in China, at one point a month after publication. “That’s my thinking too,” responded lead author Kristian Andersen, a Danish evolutionary biologist – although he admitted that he was “worried” U.S. diplomatic cables showing concerns over biosecurity in Wuhan, which had been disclosed by the Washington Post, “might have something”.
It is hard to overstate the influence of this single article, accessed almost six million times and cited by 5,942 other specialist papers. The journal’s editor João Monteiro tweeted out a link saying: “Let’s put conspiracy theories about the origin of #SARSCoV2 to rest and help to stop spread of misinformation.” It was highlighted in the White House by Anthony Fauci, the U.S. infectious diseases expert and adviser to several presidents. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed its “evidence” – as did the Communist Party chief at WIV. Sir Jeremy Farrar, now the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist, told me it was “the most important research on the genomic epidemiology of the origins of this virus” more than one year later as he insisted “no scientific evidence I have seen to date points to outbreak linked to a laboratory”.
It subsequently emerged through leaks and freedom of information requests that this pair, along with Francis Collins, head of the biggest U.S. science funding body, were involved behind the scenes in the article. Farrar, then Director of the Wellcome Trust, was tasked with hosting a teleconference on February 1st involving the five authors and six other experts including Sir Patrick Vallance, the U.K. Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser until three months ago. After the call, Farrar confessed he was “50:50” on whether Covid came from a lab – and later was found to have told Collins that Wuhan engaged in “wild west” research practices. His office admitted to me eventually, after a barrage of emails, that he helped “convene” the Nature Medicine authors.
As Vallance once wrote in another science journal, “inferences should be drawn from attempts to hide interactions”. Unfortunately, the lab leak theory was snarled in tribal politics after it was flagged by Donald Trump, creating a toxic climate for those of us probing the origins in the pandemic’s early days. Now, this article is at the centre of a House subcommittee investigation after Republicans summoned the two U.S.-based authors – Andersen and Bob Garry, a microbiologist in New Orleans – to answer questions earlier this month on their deliberations. Afterwards, the cache of documents and messages were detected in the committee papers and on its website by members of Drastic, a group of independent researchers that has uncovered many key nuggets in this quest for the truth about a deadly disease.
Andersen set up what he called the “super secret” Slack group under the intriguing original name of “project-wuhan-engineering” with Holmes and Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at Edinburgh University, on the day of the teleconference. Farrar, portrayed as a driving force behind the paper, urged everyone to keep their deliberations confidential in that first discussion. A few days later, he signed a letter with two Wellcome Trust colleagues in the Lancet journal hitting out at “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin”. It was later found to have been covertly organised by British scientist Peter Daszak, who runs a body that funnelled substantial U.S. funding for research into bat coronaviruses to WIV.
The Dane declared to his colleagues that the question they needed to answer was whether Covid emerged due to “evolution or engineering” since both were “really rather plausible” – as remains the case today. Andersen added that Garry would not want the virus to have arisen from “GoF escape” – a reference to controversial Gain of Function research, which boosts the infectivity of viruses and was banned for four years in the U.S. “The main thing still in my mind is that the lab escape version of this is so friggin’ likely to have happened because they were already doing this type of work and the molecular data is fully consistent with that scenario,” he said.
The fact they were discussing the concept of a lab leak “shows how plausible it is”, added Rambaut the next day. But the Scottish-based expert urged them to change tack. “I personally think we should get away from all the strange coincidence stuff. I agree it smells really fishy but without a smoking gun it will not do us any good,” he wrote. “The truth is never going to come out (if [lab] escape is the truth). Would need to be irrefutable evidence. My position is that natural evolution is entirely plausible and we will have to leave it at that. Lab passaging might also generate this mutation but we have no evidence that that happened.”
Rambaut said revealingly that due to “the shit show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is we should say given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content with ascribing it to natural processes”. Andersen responded that he agreed this was “a very reasonable conclusion” despite hating “when politics is injected into science”. And this seemed to become their eventual template.
Much of their subsequent discussion, interspersed with banter, is technical. They discuss RaTG13, the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2 that was collected by scientists at WIV from a mine hundreds of miles from Wuhan and is linked to the deaths from a mysterious Covid-like respiratory virus of three miners clearing bat guano from a cave. They puzzle over the infamous furin cleavage site, which allows more efficient entry into human cells and is not found on similar types of coronaviruses. “Bob [Garry] said the insertion was the first thing he would add,” wrote Holmes. “Yeah,” responded Andersen. “The furin site would be the first thing to add for sure.”
Garry even explains at one point how easy it would be – even for a graduate student – to make such a virus by inserting a furin cleavage site into a bat virus such as RaTG13 in cell culture. “It’s not crackpot to suggest this could have happened given the GoF research we know is happening,” he adds.
Worth reading in full.