They told the world that the Covid-19 virus obviously could not be manipulated in the laboratory. But what they actually thought at first glance was that it was.
The letter from five virologists, published in Nature Medicine on March 17, 2020, was the single most influential statement in the filming of the public account of the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Here is an authoritative statement from leading experts assuring the public that regarding the origin of the virus, “we do not believe that any type of laboratory scenario is plausible.”
But this is the exact opposite of what these experts thought after taking their first look at the virus. A large batch of emails exchanged with Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were provided this week to BuzzFeed and the Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act. For the most part, emails refer to appointments or crank messages and are edited for any relevant information. But a significant email escaped the black marker of censorship.
On January 31, 2020, shortly after decoding the SARS-CoV-2 genome, Christian Andersen, the head of the five virologists, emailed Dr. Fauci that there were “unusual features” in the virus. They occupied only a small percentage of the genome, so “one has to look carefully at all the sequences to see that some of the functions (potentially) look designed.”
Mr Andersen noted that he and his team “found the genome incompatible with the expectations of evolutionary theory”. It is not clear what exactly he meant by this striking phrase. But anything that contradicts evolutionary origins must be created by man.
This remarkable email found that the initial reaction of Andersen’s team was to suspect that SARS-CoV-2 was designed in a laboratory. Their subsequent letter does not adequately explain how they overcame this impression.
The site of cleavage of furin, a small element of the virus that they undoubtedly had in mind when referring to “unusual characteristics,” is an abnormal genetic insertion that may be a sign of laboratory manipulation. Prominent virologist David Baltimore called it a smoking gun and “a powerful challenge to the idea of the natural origin of SARS2.”
In their letter, Andersen’s team discussed how the virus could have naturally acquired the furin cleavage site. Their best suggestion is that SARS-CoV-2 took the necessary genetic information from humans after jumping from bats. But there is no evidence for this idea. And it is difficult to understand why Andersen’s team decided that this assumption should go beyond laboratory manipulation.
As virologists, everyone had a professional interest in not causing a storm of public condemnation over experiments to gain function, the tasteless name for genetically increasing the pathogenic power of viruses. After taking a look at the appalling possibility that the origin of a SARS-CoV-2 laboratory leak could lead to the closure of virology laboratories around the world, it seems the Andersen team has decided to ignore its first impressions of possible manipulation. Remember what they said in their letter: “We do not believe that any type of laboratory scenario is plausible.”
Dr. Fauci has long suggested that the virus appeared naturally – until the last few weeks, when it began to allow the avoidance of the laboratory and needed to be investigated. An email from Mr Andersen on 31 January 2020 shows that Dr Fauci knew from the outset that the experts had serious suspicions about the origin of the virus. There were many other issues on his agenda at the time, but it is unfortunate that he did not ask an independent commission, not dominated by virologists, to investigate the possibility of Chinese researchers genetically manipulating low-level coronaviruses causing a global pandemic.
Mr. Wade is a science writer who has worked for Nature, Science and the New York Times.
Copyright © 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appears in print on June 5, 2021.