New information from previously redacted emails confirms that scientists consulting with government officials believed that the COVID-19 lab-leak origins hypothesis was not only possible but perhaps even likely, before Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins worked to denounce the theory as a conspiracy.
In a letter to the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, House Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Committee on Oversight and Reform ranking member Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) revealed the text of redacted emails from February 2020 in which prominent public health scientists discussed the origins of COVID-19 with Fauci and Collins. Some of the emails revealed previously unknown details of what was discussed in a secretive Feb. 1, 2020, conference call in which at least 11 scientists convened to examine the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused a global pandemic and radically transformed the lives of almost everyone in the civilized world.
What was previously known is that prior to this conference call, some of the world's top virologists who participated had raised concerns that features of the SARS-CoV-2 virus "(potentially) look engineered." But after this call, many of those same scientists reversed their opinions and publicly denounced any theory of the origins of the virus that did not claim it came from nature. These details were learned from batches of emails made public through records requests by BuzzFeed News, U.S. Right to Know, and other media organizations, but many of those emails were heavily redacted.
Unredacted copies of those emails have been made available to lawmakers behind closed doors, but have not been released publicly. The Republicans said that committee staff hand-copied the excerpts from those emails to release them to the public.
The new details "reveal that Dr. Fauci was warned of two things: (1) the potential that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute Virology (WIV) and (2) the possibility that the virus was intentionally genetically manipulated," the lawmakers wrote.
According to the transcripts released by GOP staff, both Collins, the former director of the National Institute of Health, and Fauci, the current director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were told by prominent scientists that the lab-leak origin of COVID-19 was scientifically plausible.
The first noteworthy email, dated Feb. 2, 2020, was sent by Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust mega charity, to Collins, Fauci, and Lawrence Tabak, who formerly served as the principal deputy director of NIH and is now its acting director. The email summarized discussions from the conference call, and the arguments of some scientists that said the lab leak hypothesis was possible.
Farrar noted that Dr. Michael Farzan, a Scripps Research professor of immunology and the "discoverer of SARS receptor," was "bothered by the furin site and has a hard time explain that as an event outside the lab." The email is referring to the furin cleavage site of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, a unique feature of the virus that makes it infectious.
Farzan apparently observed that while it is possible that the furin cleavage site developed naturally, it is "highly unlikely." He suggested that a "likely explanation" for the origins of the virus "could be something as simple as passage SARS -live CoVs in tissue culture on human cell lines (under [bio-safety level 2 conditions]) for an extended period of time, accidently creating a virus that would be primed for rapid transmission between humans via gain of furin site (from tissue culture) and adaption to human ACE2 receptor via repeated passage."
“So, I think it becomes a question of how do you put all this together, whether you believe in this series of coincidences, what you know of the lab in Wuhan, how much could be in nature — accidental release or natural event? I am 70:30 or 60:40,” Farzan said, according to Farrar's notes.
Another scientist on the call was Tulane Medical School microbiology professor Robert Garry. Farrar recounted him as saying there was "no plausible natural scenario" for a bat coronavirus to gain certain amino acids and nucleotides observed in SARS-CoV-2.
"I just can't figure out how this gets accomplished in nature," Garry said, according to Farrar's notes.
"Of course, in the lab it would be easy to generate the perfect 12 base insert that you wanted," he added.
Regardless of these arguments, Collins wrote back to Farrar, Fauci, and Tabak later that day that he was "coming around to the view that a natural origin is more likely," appearing to agree with arguments presented by Ron Fouchier, a Dutch scientist that famously authored a controversial gain-of-function study, and Christian Drosten, Germany's leading COVID-19 expert. Fouchier, in a Feb. 2 email thanking conference call participants for having the meeting, referred to the lab-leak hypothesis as a "conspiracy theory" and said it "would need to be supported by strong data, beyond a reasonable doubt."
"It is good that this possibility was discussed in detail with a team of experts. However, further debate 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," Foucier wrote.
Collins said he agreed with Farrar's 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." He then offered to call World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, apparently to lobby for an official response from WHO that would denounce claims that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
In previously reported emails sent later that day, Farrar wrote back to Fauci and Collins that Tedros had "gone into conclave" with WHO representative in China Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer. "They need to decide today in my view. If they do prevaricate, I would appreciate a call with you later tonight or tomorrow to think how we might take forward," Farrar wrote. At the end of the email, Farrar wrote "Meanwhile" and linked to a ZeroHedge article published that day that reported on claims that COVID-19 was engineered in the Wuhan-based lab. ZeroHedge was banned from Twitter on Feb. 3, 2020, the next day, for promoting a "coronavirus conspiracy theory." On the same day, Tedros gave a speech to the WHO executive board that mentioned, among other priorities, the need to "combat the spread of rumors and misinformation."
More emails show that after becoming convinced COVID-19 had natural origins, Fauci and Collins worked to suppress discussion of the lab-leak hypothesis. An April 16, 2020, email from Collins to Fauci and others shows him attempting to coordinate an NIH response to reporting from Fox News host Bret Baier on the lab leak theory. Baier said that multiple sources told him they've seen documents which indicated it was "increasingly likely" that COVID-19 started in the Wuhan lab.
“Wondering if there is something NIH can do to help put down this very destructive conspiracy, with what seems to be growing momentum," Collins wrote. "I hoped the Nature Medicine article on the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 would settle this. But probably didn’t get much visibility. Anything more we can do? Ask the National Academy to weigh in?”
Fauci wrote back to Collins the next day.
“I would not do anything about this right now," he wrote. "It is a shiny object that will go away in time.”
But the lab-leak hypothesis did not just go away, despite Fauci's repeated public assertions as the chief COVID-19 spokesman for the White House that the lab-leak hypothesis was a conspiracy theory. Fauci would later be thanked by Proximal Origins author Ian W. Lipkin for his "efforts in steering and messaging."
In September 2021, the Lancet published an alternative view by scientists calling for "objective, open, and transparent scientific debate about the origin of SARS-CoV-2." These scientists raised several points that support the lab-leak hypothesis, while noting that conclusive evidence in favor of that theory or the natural origins theory remains elusive.
An official U.S. intelligence report on the origins of COVID-19 commissioned by the Biden White House and released this summer was inconclusive, noting that stonewalling by China prevented investigators from learning the truth.