Tuesday, Dec 05, 2023

How Top Experts Misled World On Covid-origin, Why Are White House And US Congress Probes 3 Years Late?

How Top Experts Misled World On Covid-origin, Why Are White House And US Congress Probes 3 Years Late?

While they suspected possible engineering of Covid-19 virus privately and were worried by ‘pre-adapted’ nature of the virus, some of the world’s top experts dismissed such questions publicly. Now their role is under question.

People wearing face masks walk on street in Beijing.
People wearing face masks walk on street in Beijing. Photo: AP/Andy Wong

If the revelations in January left any suspicions on the misleading conduct of the world’s top experts on the question of Covid-origin, then no such doubts remain after the Congressional memo last month that showed that a top scientist at the fore of denying potential lab-origin of Covid-19 actually found it “pre-adapted” for human infection — a core argument by those pressing for an investigation of potential lab-origin. 

Prof. Edward Holmes told a fellow scientist in an email on February 10, 2020 that he found SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19 disease, to be “pre-adapted for human spread since the get go”, according to a memo published by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic of the US Congress on March 5. 

Earlier in January, email exchanges between top scientists —including Holmes of Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at University of Sydney— showed they suspected the virus to be engineered. Yet they went on to write a highly influential paper that dismissed any possibility of the lab-origin of Covid-19. 

Collectively, the revelations in January —published by The Intercept and The Nation— and the Congressional memo in March give an idea of how the world was misled by some of the top scientists and government advisors from the onset. 

It is only now that the White House and US Congress are going ahead full-steam with the pursuit of answers to the question of Covid-origin — after the passage of three years. 

The conference where it all began

Some of the world’s foremost experts convened an informal conference on February 1, 2020, to look into the question of origin of Covid-19. The experts included the then-National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr Anthony Fauci, Holmes, Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, and Kristian Andersen of The Scripps Research Institute. 

Following a conversation with biologist Andersen, Fauci was so concerned that he said that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and British MI5 should be informed “if everyone agrees with this concern”. A later email showed the virus appeared to be “engineered” to Andersen and “inconsistent” with viruses that evolve naturally. These were the revelations made in emails published by The Intercept and The Nation in January. 

The Congressional memo published previously unreported information and threw further light on how these scientists and their partners believed one thing privately and said another publicly. It shows that an influential paper published by members of the conference was edited to make a lab-leak sound impossible. 

In the most damning finding, the memo revealed that one of this paper’s authors —Holmes— actually found the virus “pre-adapted for human spread”, a finding also made by molecular biologist and author Alina Chan but was dismissed by a large section of the scientists. 

In May 2020, Alina and her colleagues published a study that noted that SARS-CoV-2 appeared to be pre-adapted to infect humans. It found that the virus resembled the late-stage SARS-CoV virus which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. The study noted, “Even the possibility that a non-genetically-engineered precursor could have adapted to humans while being studied in a laboratory should be considered, regardless of how likely or unlikely.”

Holmes and fellow participants had the same thoughts but they said the exact opposite in public. 

Virus appeared to be pre-adapted to top expert

Following the initial conversation, Anderson wrote, “The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered. I should mention that after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike and myself all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory. But we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change.”

On February 2, 2020, Farrar noted in an email that he was 50:50 on the question of natural- or lab-origin. He further said that Michael Farzan of Scripps was “70:30 or 60:40” and Holmes was 60:40. 

On February 4, the scientists prepared the summary of their findings so far. Ruling out “deliberate engineering”, they noted the virus either emerged naturally or from a laboratory practice called ‘selection during passage’. 

“It is currently impossible to prove or disprove either and it is unclear whether future data or analyses will help resolve this issue,” said the summary, as per The Intercept and The Nation. Anderson later repeated the same. 

Something happened around this time. On February 7, scientists in China declared that virus samples extracted from pangolins were a 99 per cent match for SARS-CoV-2. This proved to be false later. However, Holmes reversed his views in favour of natural-origin based on this. However, on February 10, he told another scientist that he still found SARS-CoV-2 “pre-adapted for human spread”.

“It is indeed striking that this virus is so closely related to SARS yet is behaving so differently. Seems to have been pre-adapted for human spread since the get go. It’s the epidemiology that I find most worrying,” said Holmes in the email unearthed in the Congressional memo.

As for the pangolin data, Alina of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and science writer Matt Ridley noted in their book VIRAL: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19: “A press conference is not a scientific result. In fact, when the virus genome was finally shared in mid-February, the 99 per cent figure proved to be wrong. The virus was only approximately 90 per cent similar to SARS-CoV-2 overall.”

Despite the conference's findings that there was not enough evidence to lean either way, the group somehow went ahead with a paper stating a natural-origin.

On March 6, Anderson wrote to the group that the paper had been accepted by the prestigious Nature journal. It was published on March 17, titled The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2. The paper proved to be highly influential and was treated as conclusive evidence establishing natural-origin. Yet it was based on findings which just weeks ago were not enough to prove or disprove either natural- or lab-origin. 

Fauci’s role, reworking of paper’s language

As if this was not enough, the Congressional memo unearthed that Fauci, who became the national face of US Covid-response as the President’s advisor, played a role in killing the lab-leak theory. 

“New evidence released by the Select Subcommittee today suggests that Dr. Fauci ‘prompted’ the drafting of a publication that would ‘disprove’ the lab leak theory, the 
authors of this paper skewed available evidence to achieve that goal, and Dr. Jeremy 
Farrar went uncredited despite significant involvement,” said the memo.

On February 12, Anderson wrote to Nature journal —which published the Proximal Origin paper— that Fauci “prompted” him and fellow participants. 

“Prompted by Jeremy Farrah [sic], Tony Fauci, and Francis Collins, Eddie Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, Bob Garry, Ian Lipkin, and myself have been working through much of the (primarily) genetic data to provide agnostic and scientifically informed hypothesis around the origins of the virus.” said Anderson in the email, as per the Congressional memo.

The memo noted, “This e-mail directly contradicts Scripps’ earlier statement that Dr. Fauci did not influence Dr. Andersen.”

The memo also includes an email by Farrar that shows he edited the language of the paper to show that the lab-leak was impossible. Initially, it was written in the paper that lab-origin was “unlikely” but Farrar replaced the word with “improbable”. This edit was uncredited and unknown until the Congressional memo unearthed it from emails it obtained. 

Such conduct of Fauci and others raises “serious questions” and the Congress must reexamine his role along with that of Dr Francis Collins, the-then National Institutes of Health (NIH) head and a fellow participant of the conference, who dismissed potential lab-origin and labelled the idea as a conspiracy theory, says Robert E Moffit, Senior Research Fellow at  Center for Health and Welfare Policy of Washington DC-based Heritage Foundation.

He further tells Outlook, “More troubling is that the top virologists, with whom they conferred on the subject, notably, Drs. Robert Garry and Kristian Andersen, apparently changed their minds without access to the hard data and the information —held by the Chinese— that could either confirm or deny the scientific truth about the origins of the coronavirus.”

‘US govt could have done much more, 9/11 Commission-like probe suitable’

Though US President Joe Biden tasked the US intelligence community (IC), comprising a total of 18 agencies, to come up with an assessment of Covid-origin, in 2021, it was not until the second half of 2022 that the US government was moving full-steam to look for answers to the question of Covid-origin.

Now the IC is on the job under the White House directives, the IC is in the process of making origin-related information public as per a law passed by Congress and signed by Biden, and multiple Congressional committees are running origin-related investigations. But this is happening three years late. Heritage’s Moffit says the US government could have been much more proactive on the subject, noting that it missed certain red flags at the onset.

He tells Outlook, “I believe that the US government could have been much more proactive on the issue of Covid-19 origins. The very fact that on January 3, 2020, the Chinese Communist government prohibited the release of any information concerning COVID-19 without government approval should have been an immediate red flag, that something was deeply wrong or that had something they felt they needed to hide, while vigorously insisting that the coronavirus had a natural origin.”

Moffit says the intelligence operations should have been ramped as the US Department of State had inputs of lab workers falling sick in Wuhan in early 2020.

“Since we were denied access to data and information by the Chinese Communist government, we should have ramped up our intelligence, seeking out confirmation by the normal methods of human intelligence. Congress can only act on the information that is provided to them. Unfortunately, top public health officials in the United States seemed to be wedded to the natural origins theory — even though they had no empirical evidence for it,” says Moffit.

When asked if the US Congress should set up a 9/11 Commission-like bipartisan panel to probe Covid-orign, Moffit tells Outlook, “ I am not, in principle opposed to a 9/11 type Commission on the US response to Covid-19, including the origins question. I do believe, however, that  it is the immediate responsibility of the Congress to conduct an aggressive and thorough set of oversight investigations, using its subpoena power to compel testimony under oath, with penalties for perjury for any federal official who lies under oath.”  

Considering the fundamentally opaque nature of Communist China, it’s certain that answers would never be provided by the CPC. However, experts say that there are likely people outside China —particularly American collaborators of Wuhan researchers— with answers to the question of Covid-origin. 

“Yes, there is a good chance that the origin will one day be revealed and there is likely evidence outside of China that can be unearthed. With a pandemic of this scale, it is very likely that there are people, even outside of China, who know how it began. We have to push for a proper investigation to be conducted or for a brave whistleblower to come forth with the truth,” said Alina of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in an earlier interview with Outlook.