I was duped by the Covid lab leak deniers

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Inch by painful inch, the truth is being dragged out about how this pandemic started. It is just about understandable, if not forgivable, that Chinese scientists have obfuscated vital information about early cases and their work with similar viruses in Wuhan’s laboratories: they were subject to fierce edicts from a ruthless, totalitarian regime.

It is more shocking to discover in emails released this week that some western scientists were also saying different things in public from what they thought in private. The emails were exchanged over the first weekend of February 2020 between senior virologists on both sides of the Atlantic following a meeting arranged by Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, with America’s two top biologists, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Freedom of Information requests sent last year produced farcical results in both Britain and America: ghost emails with all the contents redacted. Now, the US government has been forced to make unredacted versions available to Republicans on the House of Representatives’ oversight committee for an “in camera review”.

Thankfully, staffers transcribed some of the contents. They show that Dr Fauci, Dr Collins and Sir Patrick Vallance, our Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, were briefed, on and after February 1, by several virologists who thought at the time that the new virus showed signs of having been manipulated in the laboratory.

Not only did they never breathe a word of this suspicion to the media or the public, they rubbished it. The meeting on February 1 led to an article from the very virologists who were making the case that the virus showed signs of having been in a lab. Yet, in the words of Dr Collins, the job of that article was to “settle” the matter and “put down this very destructive conspiracy” lest the rumours do harm to “international harmony”.

Three of the five authors in that paper are shown in the emails to be leaning towards the conclusion either that a key part of the genome of the virus had been manipulated in a laboratory, or that the virus had mutated in human cells while in a lab. Yet they dismissed both possibilities in the paper they drafted.

We do not know what was in the first draft, prepared just three days after the meeting, but the final article, published in Nature Medicine on March 17, concluded that “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”.

By then, two other articles had been rushed into print. One, in The Lancet, set out to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”. The other, in Emerging Microbes and Infections (EMI), by Liu Shan-Lu and colleagues, found “no credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering” of the virus. The Lancet article failed to disclose (for 18 months) the conflict of interest of several authors including Peter Daszak, a close collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology who secretly orchestrated the article.

The EMI article failed to disclose the fact that a senior virologist, Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina, had agreed to help edit it, saying: “Sure, but don’t want to be cited in as having commented prior to submission.” Scientific journals have not behaved with transparency.

At the time, given that I had written extensively on genomics, I was asked often about the chances that the pandemic started with a lab leak and I said this had been ruled out, pointing to the three articles in question. Only later, when I dug deeper, did I notice just how flimsy their arguments were.

For example, the Nature Medicine paper included a passage saying the virus “would have then required repeated passage in cell culture or animals with ACE2 receptors, but such work has also not previously been described”. It is surprising to learn now that Sir Jeremy Farrar himself thought this very “passage” operation was a “likely explanation” of how the virus came to have its unique features. At the time, I trusted senior virologists who told me the lab leak could be dismissed. Frankly, I was duped.


Matt Ridley is the co-author of ‘Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19’

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