Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged that he and a group of scientists had discussed the theory that the coronavirus leaked from a lab, and the possibility that it could have been genetically engineered, during a teleconference on February 1, 2020.
“I remember it very well,” Fauci told USA Today on Thursday. “We decided on the call the situation really needed to be looked into carefully.”
The existence of the teleconference was documented in a trove of Fauci’s emails released as part of a FOIA request by BuzzFeed. Kristian Andersen, a participant on the call and specialist in infectious disease genomics at the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told Fauci in an email on January 31 that “some of the features” of coronavirus “(potentially) look engineered.”
Andersen wrote that he, virologist Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney, and other scientists agreed that they “all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” although “those opinions could still change.”
The teleconference “was a very productive back-and-forth conversation where some on the call felt it could possibly be an engineered virus,” Fauci said. “I always had an open mind” toward the lab-leak theory, “even though I felt then, and still do, the most likely origin was in an animal host.”
Fauci has publicly supported the theory that the coronavirus first jumped from an animal to a human, and dismissed the the lab-leak theory as the less-likely alternative.
“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what’s out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species,” he said in a May 2020 interview with National Geographic. He added that proponents of the lab-leak theory were advancing a “circular argument.”
A researcher with ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology thanked Fauci in April 2020 for supporting the natural-origin hypothesis.
On February 4, three days after the conference, Andersen said in a separate email that “data conclusively show” that coronavirus was not engineered. That email was intended for scientists who were drafting a letter on the pathogen to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to this virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case,” Andersen said in that email. “Engineering can mean many things and could be done for either basic research or nefarious reasons, but the data conclusively show that neither was done…”
Andersen did not comment to USA Today on why his position seemed to change within three days.
Public debate on whether the coronavirus leaked from a lab was rekindled after the Wall Street Journal reported that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in November 2019, before the first identified case of coronavirus on December 8 of that year. That report was based on a U.S. intelligence assessment, which claimed that researchers became sick “with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.”
Alina Chan, a postdoctoral associate at Harvard University and MIT, said some scientists felt they could not speak freely about the lab-leak theory at the start of the pandemic, for fear of being associated with former President Trump.
“At the time, it was scarier to be associated with Trump and to become a tool for racists, so people didn’t want to publicly call for an investigation into lab origins,” Chan told NBC on Thursday.