Emails indicate scientists found lab leak theory highly plausible in early 2020

Emails indicate scientists found lab leak theory highly plausible in early 2020
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The debate over the lab leak theory was front and center in February 2020 when Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci convened a conference call of elite scientists to discuss how COVID-19 may have originated. But emails discussing the call show that while several scientists on the call thought the possibility of a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a 50-50 proposition or better, Dr. Collins seemed eager to downplay the idea. The Intercept has a story summarizing the findings of the newly revealed emails:

On February 2, Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert and the director of Wellcome, sent around notes, including to Fauci and Collins, summarizing what some of the scientists had said on the call. Farzan, a Scripps professor who studied the spike protein on the 2003 SARS virus, “is bothered by the furin site and has a hard time explain that as an event outside the lab (though, there are possible ways in nature, but highly unlikely),” Farrar’s note reads, referring to a spike protein feature that aids interaction with furin, a common enzyme in human lung cells. Farzan didn’t think the site was the product of “directed engineering,” but found that the changes would be “highly compatible with the idea of continued passage of the virus in tissue culture.”

According to the transcribed notes, Garry, a professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine, said on the call that he had aligned the SARS-CoV-2 genome with that of RaTG13, a 96-percent similar virus isolated from bats at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was long regarded as the new virus’s closest known relative — though a closer one has since been identified. Garry found that the spike proteins of RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2, which makes the latter so infectious, were nearly identical. The key distinction was in the ability of the new virus’s spike protein to interact with furin, which Garry found too perfect to make natural sense. “I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature,” he said…

In a February 4 email, which House Republicans presented as a response to a first copy of the draft, Fauci wrote: “?? Serial passage in ACE2-transgenic mice.”

If you look at the emails included as an appendix to a letter written by Reps. James Comer and Jim Jordan, you see some scientists were even giving odds on the lab leak theory. Dr. Jeremy Farrar wrote in a Feb. 2, 2020 email, “…accidental release or natural event? I am 70:30 or 60:40.” A subsequent email on Feb. 4 from Dr. Farrar said, “…[Eddie Holmes] 60-40 lab. I am 50-50.” That’s a reference to Professor Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney. So that’s at least two scientists who, early on at least, felt the odds of a lab leak was even or greater.

But several of the scientists on the call have since reversed course about their initial concerns the virus appeared manipulated, including Tulane professor Robert Garry:

“My initial impression and that of others about the [furin cleavage site] was wrong. I changed my mind with new information/new data,” Garry wrote to The Intercept. “That’s how science works. No one was trying to mislead the public. What was in the Proximal Origins paper was our best analysis — it’s held up extremely well.”…

“The major feedback we got from the Feb 1 teleconference was: 1. Don’t try to write a paper at all — it’s unnecessary or 2. If you do write it don’t mention a lab origin as that will just add fuel to the conspiracists,” Garry wrote on Wednesday.

It seems the scientists on the call got that message. By Feb. 4, several of them had joined together to write a paper which barely mentioned the lab leak as a possibility. It’s not clear what changed their minds so quickly but it is clear that Dr. Collins, the head of NIH at the time, was concerned the lab leak theory could do damage to “science and international harmony.” He wrote in a Feb. 2 email, “I am coming around to the view that a natural origin is more likely. But I share your view that a swift convening of experts in a confidence inspiring framework (WHO seems really the only option) is needed, or the voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate, doing great potential harm to science and international harmony…”

I’m sure different people will read different things into that but it sound to me as if Collins’ concern is as much political as it is scientific. It may still turn out that they were right about natural passage origin of COVID but there is belated consensus that February of 2020 was too soon to dismiss the possibility given how little information was available at the time. Even now, nearly two years later, the possibility of a lab leak still hasn’t been ruled out and the exact species from which the virus might have jumped naturally still hasn’t been identified.

Allahpundit pointed out yesterday that Dr. Fauci and Senator Paul were arguing again during congressional testimony. One of the things they argued about was the content of these emails. Here’s Ryan Grim, the co-author of the Intercept piece, discussing the findings and the battle between Paul and Fauci over the emails.

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