Early in the pandemic, multiple scientists urged NIAID director Anthony Fauci and NIH director Francis Collins to seriously consider the theory that Covid escaped from a Chinese laboratory, arguing that the lab-leak theory, which Fauci and Collins have downplayed since the pandemic began, was more plausible than the natural origin explanation.
Mike Farzan, an immunology researcher and the discoverer of the SARS receptor, Bob Garry, a virology expert, and Dr. Andrew Rambaut, a British evolutionary biologist, all observed that a particular feature of the virus, the “furin cleavage site,” was peculiar and suggested gain-of-function engineering. Their comments were made during a February 2020 conference call of experts, the notes of which were presented to Fauci and Collins and obtained by congressional Republicans.
One month later, in March 2020, Collins said the lab-leak hypothesis was “outrageous.” Similarly, in May 2020, Fauci told National Geographic that Covid “could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated.”
In his summary, Farzan stated that SARS-CoV-2 had the marking of laboratory experimentation that resulted in a virus that immediately proved highly infectious to humans.
“So given above, a likely explanation could be something as simple as passage SARS-live CoVs in tissue culture on human cell lines (under BSL-2) for an extended period of time, accidentally creating a virus that would be primed for rapid transmission between humans via gain of furin site (from tissue culture) and adaptation to human ACE2 receptor via repeated passage,” he said.
Comparing the probabilities associated with “accidental release” and “natural event” respectively, Farzan said he was “70:30 or 60:40” in favor of the former explanation. Referring to another scientist, he said: “He is bothered by the furin site and has a hard time explain that as an event outside the lab (though, there are possible ways in nature, but highly unlikely).”
Garry echoed Farzan in his analysis, adding that the virus’s chemical makeup would mean that the “bat virus” would have had to have undergone an extremely intricate alteration more likely to have been performed in a laboratory setting. He later specified that the furin cleavage site present in the original Covid strain would be unlikely to emerge in nature in a way that made the virus highly transmissible in humans.
“I really can’t think of a plausible natural scenario where you get from the bat virus or one very similar to it to nCoV where you insert exactly 4 amino acids 12 nucleotides that all have to be added at the exact same time to gain this function – that and you don’t change any other amino acid in S2? I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature,” he said.
On a February 2 email, on which Fauci and Collins were copied, Rambaut wrote that he’s also skeptical of the notion that the novel furin cleavage site emerged naturally. “From a (natural) evolutionary point of view the only thing here that strikes me as unusual is the furin cleavage site,” he said. Rambaut noted that the insertion sequence of Covid, which has not been found in any other known coronavirus, also “resulted in an extremely fit virus in humans,” meaning it spreads among humans very efficiently.
While questions circulated among these researchers, the scientific establishment was eager to quiet their suspicions, branding the lab-leak hypothesis still as a “conspiracy” that must be suppressed, the phone conference notes reveal.
An unsigned meeting note, which was presumably signed off on by Fauci and Collins, reads: “I share your view that a swift convening of experts in a confidence inspiring framework (WHO seems really the only option) is needed, or the voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate, doing great potential harm to science and international harmony….”
Dr. Ron Fouchier, a Dutch virologist, remarked during the conference that further discussion “about such accusations would unnecessarily distract top researchers from their active duties and do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular.”
Collins wrote in an April 2020 email to Fauci and other officials: “Wondering if there is something NIH can do to help put down this very constructive conspiracy, with what seems to be growing momentum,” and he then embeds a hyperlink to an article about Fox News’ anchors supporting the lab-leak theory. The next day, Fauci responds to Collins, saying: “I would not do anything about this right now. It is a shiny object that will go away in times.”
While Fauci and Collins insisted otherwise, the debate surrounding Covid’s origin remains unsettled. The natural origin theory was widely accepted by the mainstream media and enforced by social media censors until a number of thorough articles in major magazines granted credence to the mounting countervailing evidence, at which point public health authorities, reporters, and pundits began to admit their ignorance. As of December 2021, the majority of Americans believe the virus leaked from a lab.