In March 2020, some colleagues in Parliament, knowing I was interested in genetics and medicine, asked me if I thought Covid began with a lab leak. “No,” I replied confidently. In this I relied on conversations with expert virologists and a paper that five of them published in Nature Medicine categorically ruling it out: “Our analyzes clearly show that Sars-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposely manipulated virus.”
Today, I feel betrayed. Thanks to emails released under Freedom of Information this week, we now know that they did think a lab leak was possible, and the evidence that they then used to dismiss it was faulty.
The emails are between senior scientific administrators, including Sir Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientist, Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Francis Collins in the United States, plus a clutch of virologists.
The virologists had raised the alarm on first seeing the virus’s genome because it contained a furin cleavage site – the first and only time such a highly infectious feature has turned up in a Sars-like virus. Putting furin cleavage sites into other viruses in the lab had become a popular cottage industry in virology in recent years, including in Wuhan. Serial passage (chain of infection) of viruses in lab animals has sometimes generated a furin cleavage site spontaneously.
On February 4, an exchange took place during which Sir Jeremy said there was a “very real possibility of accidental lab passage in animals”. Dr Collins replied, sceptically: “Surely that wouldn’t be done in a [biosafety level 2] lab?” To this Sir Jeremy replied: “Wild West…”
Then on February 7 something changed. All mention of the possibility that the furin cleavage site was acquired in the lab was removed from the draft paper, and much stronger statements were substituted – the ones on which I relied. What caused the change?
That day South China Agricultural University announced that a 99 percent similar virus had been found in smuggled pangolins a long way to the south of Wuhan. “Reports coming out overnight that Chinese groups have pangolin viruses that are 99 percent similar,” wrote Sir Jeremy. The paper was redrafted. “With the additional information… I think the argument is even clearer,” he wrote on February 8.
But the 99 percent claim was false. When the actual pangolin data was released on February 17, it told a different story: just 90 percent similarity, and no furin cleavage site. So the pangolin virus could not support the argument that the furin site in Sars-CoV-2 was natural. Yet that same day the virologists released on the internet the new version of their paper, strongly dismissive of all lab leak possibilities and repeatedly citing the pangolin virus.
Later we found out that Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance submitted a grant proposal in 2018, in collaboration with Wuhan colleagues, that included a plan to insert furin cleavage sites into novel Sars-like viruses for the first time. Something he forgot to tell us, incidentally.
For about a year, scientists who had secretly thought that the virus could have escaped from a lab, and who had relied on inaccurate information to reject that hypothesis, colluded in telling the media that this was a debunked conspiracy theory. Despite instructing the rest of us to “follow the science”, these scientists were not doing so themselves. It is a scandal.
Matt Ridley is the co-author of ‘Viral: The search for the origin of Covid-19’