Covid Origin: Top Scientists Discussed Lab Origin In Private, But Dismissed It In Public, Show Emails

Top scientists in February 2020 privately concluded that they could neither confirm nor rule out either the lab- or natural-origin of Covid-19 virus, but some of them changed opinion within weeks and published an influential paper establishing natural-origin of the virus, according to emails published by The Nation and The Intercept.


Three years after the Covid-19, we don't know how the Covid-19 emerged. (Representative Photo)

Following a conversation with biologist Kristian Andersen, US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr Anthony 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”. The subject of the discussion was the origin of Covid-19. Andersen’s concern was that the virus appeared to be bio-engineered. 

These revelations have come as part of the unredacted emails obtained and published by The Intercept and The Nation. The emails have been obtained via US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

What was so dire that Fauci said they should alert the FBI and MI5? A later email shows the virus appeared to be “engineered” to Andersen and “inconsistent” with viruses that evolve naturally.


He 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, Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy 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 UF Scripps Institute was “70:30 or 60:40” in favour of lab-origin and Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney was 60:40 favouring lab-origin. 


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.

Holmes, however, changed his assessment in favour of the natural-origin of Covid-19 after data on pangolins came from China. At a press conference 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. 

“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,” noted Alina China and Matt Ridley in their book VIRAL: The Story of the Search for Origin of Covid-19

On February 8, 2020, Anderson in an email to Fauci and other scientists part of the discussion —including Farrar, Robert Garry of Tulane University, and Holmes— said they could neither confirm nor rule out either the lab- or natural-origin of the virus. 


He wrote, “The fact that Wuhan became the epicenter of the ongoing pandemic caused by nCoV is likely an unfortunate coincidence, but it raises questions that would be wrong to dismiss out of hand. Our work over the last couple of weeks has been focused on trying to disprove any type of lab theory but we are at a crossroad where the scientific evidence isn’t conclusive enough to say that we have high confidence in any of the three main theories considered. (emphasis in original)” 

Andersen also noted that they did not have enough material at the time to publish their findings in a journal. However, he wrote to the group on March 6 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 —as revelations by The Nation and The Intercept now show— were not enough to prove or disprove either natural- or lab-origin. 


The zeal of certain scientists in dismissing any discussion on the origin of Covid-19 and sharing opinion as fact has been a running theme through the pandemic. Though independent experts now make a strong case for a lab-origin, people calling for a potential lab-origin’s investigation in the early phase of the pandemic were merely calling for a proper investigation. They said that both lab- and natural-origin of SARS-CoV-2 should be investigated. One of the most influential scientists dismissing lab-origin has been EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, who is also a collaborator and funder of Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). This too is a running theme. 


Alina of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard told Outlook, “These scientists clearly had reasonably perceived conflicts of interest, such as being funders or collaborators of the scientists in Wuhan. They should have been more transparent about these relationships with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). This way, readers in early 2020 would have seen that the Proximal Origin letter was driven by advocates of risky virus research and scientists who might get blamed if the pandemic did start in a Wuhan lab.”

It is certain that elements within China should know how the pandemic began — or did not begin. But it is also certain that Chinese authorities —because of the opaque state structure— will never be 100 per cent co-operative. But that does not mean we can never know how the pandemic began. Since the coronavirus research in China was an international project and US government funds fuelled it — WIV’s Shi Zhengli received $1.2 million, often provided by EcoHealth Alliance's Daszak. Experts say there are chances that there is evidence outside of China to find the answer to the question of Covid-origin. 


In an interview, Alina told Outlook, “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.” 

Some progress has already been made in this direction. US Congressional investigations have revealed that the US government funds were being transferred to Chinese government institutions dedicated to bio-weapons. Though this is not a proof but this is yet another example of how risky research was being conducted in opaque conditions in China with international support without much oversight. 


A report by the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence found during its investigation that US government funds were flowing to China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), which carries out bioweapons research and coronavirus experiments. 

“At the Committee’s request, GAO [Government Accountability Office] is conducting a comprehensive accounting of all public funds the United States Government disbursed, whether directly or indirectly, from January 2014 through December of 2021 to AMMS and the WIV. In November of 2022, GAO provided Committee staff an update on its work, confirming that grant money from HHS components flowed to the AMMS Fifth Institute via subawards from certain U.S. universities,” said the report. 


The complete report of GAO is expected to be released in early 2023. The Committee investigation is also set to accelerate as US Republicans now control the House of Representatives. Though the US Congress is running bipartisan investigations on Covid-origin, the Republicans in charge could mean a more proactive Congress on the subject as Republicans are generally more hawkish on China.