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Newly unredacted correspondence between Fauci and top scientists reveals early efforts to shift the narrative on COVID-19's possible lab origins despite uncertainty

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Image source: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

It is clear from newly unredacted communications between top scientists that early in the pandemic, there was a coordinated push to downplay the possibility that COVID-19 originated in a lab and to instead bolster then-unsubstantiated claims that the virus had naturally made the trans-species jump to humans.

What are the details?

Through a Freedom of Information lawsuit, Guardian reporter Jimmy Tobias obtained newly unredacted emails detailing both the Feb. 1, 2020, teleconference between Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and virologists discussing the SARS-COV-2 virus, as well as other correspondence pertaining to COVID-19's possible origins.

Emily Kopp, a reporter with the nonprofit investigative research group U.S. Right to Know, has incorporated these findings into an extensive and detailed timeline concerning the "proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2."

Kopp noted that in February 2020, when the aforementioned teleconference took place, several top virologists sought to examine the nature of the coronavirus that would go on to kill tens of millions of people worldwide.

Although they ultimately concluded in the journal "Nature Medicine" that the virus had not been engineered, stating, "We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible," behind the scenes there was a great deal of doubt.

Furin cleavage site

Many of the scientists who were attempting to account for the origin of the furin cleavage site on the virus' spike protein — responsible for its relatively high infectivity — were confronted with the strong possibility of human intervention.

U.S. Right to Know reported that in January 2020, Danish evolutionary biologist and Scripps Research Institute immunology professor Kristian G. Andersen raised the matter of a gain-of-function study that "looked like a how-to manual for building the Wuhan coronavirus in a laboratory."

Andersen reportedly directed British evolutionary biologist and virologist Edward Holmes' attention to the "furin cleavage site between the S1 and S2 junctions," which had features characteristic of genetic engineering.

The furin cleavage site is a place in a virus cell where furin protease enzymes split the spike protein, the hook that binds to ACE2 receptors on the outer surface of human cells. Owing to this splice, the spike can bind to a second receptor called Neuropilin-1, facilitating the virus' entry into the human cell.

Many scientists believe that furin cleavage sites, such as those seen in COVID-19, are not naturally occurring. This gives credibility to the increasingly strong theory that the virus originated in a laboratory.

Holmes reportedly responded by saying, "F***, this is bad."

On Jan. 31, 2020, Andersen wrote to Fauci, "You have to look very closely at the genome to see features that are potentially engineered. … I should mention that after discussions earlier today, Eddie [Holmes], Bob [Garry], Mike [Farzan], and myself all find the genome to be inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory."

'Wild west'

In a Feb. 2, 2020, email to Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, British medical researcher Jeremy Farrar attached comments provided by Michael Farzan, professor and chair at the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute, and Bob Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane School of Medicine.

Farrar indicated that Farzan was "bothered by the furin site and has a hard time explaining that as an event outside the lab."

Farzan noted, as stated in Farrar's email, "A likely explanation could be something as simple as passaging SARS-like CoVs in tissue culture on human cell lines (under BSL-2) for an extended period 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."

"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," added Farzan.

Bob Garry said, as stated in Farrar's email, "[If] You were doing gain of function research you would NOT use an existing close [clone] of SARS or MERSv. These viruses are already human pathogens. What you would do is close a bat virus th[at] had not yet emerged. Maybe then pass it in human cells for a while to lock in the RBS, then you reclone and put in the mutations you are interested – one of the first a polybasic cleavage site.”

On the basis of Garry's and Farzan's comments, Farrar wrote, "On a spectrum if 0 is nature and 100 is release — I am honestly at 50! My guess is that this will remain grey, unless there is access to the Wuhan lab — and I suspect that is unlikely!"

While Farrar had not been swayed one way or the other by the data available at the time, he noted that Holmes "would be 60:40 lab side."

Collins clarified that "Eddie is now arguing against the idea that this is the product of intentional human engineering. But repeated tissue culture passage is still an option — though it doesn't explain the O-linked glycans."

Farrar agreed, "'Engineered' probably not," but contended that there "remains very real possibility of accidental lab passage in animals to give glycans."

Collins wrote back on Feb. 4, "I'd be interested in the proposal of accidental lab passage in animals (which ones?)."

U.S. Right to Know reported that Fauci's concerned reply, "?? Serial passage in ACE2-transgenic mice," referenced the possibility that "the virus could have acquired its furin cleavage site through serial passage in mice engineered with human airway cells."

University of North Carolina virus expert Dr. Ralph Baric, who experimented on coronaviruses with Dr. Zhengli Shi and received funding from Fauci's agency, reportedly shared transgenic mice with the Wuhan lab.

Farrar answered Fauci in the affirmative.

Collins couldn't let himself believe that such reckless experimentation would be done in Wuhan, writing, "Surely that wouldn't be done in a BSL-2 lab (a low biosafety level laboratory)?"

Farrar responded, "Wild West."

Shooting down a strong possibility

Citing concerns from the Chinese in Hubei who believed they were being lied to about the virus' origins, Edward Holmes wrote that things "were made worse when the Wuhan lab published the bat virus sequence — a bat sampled in a different province for which they have a large collection of samples."

"I believe the aim/question here is whether we, as scientists, should try to write something balanced on the science behind this?" wrote Holmes. "There are arguments for and against doing this."

On Feb. 8, Andersen stated, "The fact that Wuhan became the epicenter of the ongoing epidemic caused by nCoV is likely an unfortunate coincidence, but it raises questions that would be wrong to dismiss out of hand. Our main 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."

On Feb. 9, Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who is head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience, emphasized to Andersen that she "would not be in favour of publishing something specific on the lab escape hypothesis, because ... this could backfire."

Koopmans recommended "zooming out a bit for starters, describing that one of the key challenges is where this virus came from, discuss some of the (wild) guesses out there. ... And I would leave 'lab escape' for the discussion, because putting that in the public domain as a hypothesis in my view will be read as 'see, they also thought so'."

The leaders of the medical establishment zoomed out significantly.

In March 2020, Fauci told CBS' "Face the Nation" that COVID-19 was an animal virus that jumped to a human.

Fauci told National Geographic in May 2020 that notwithstanding the concerns privately expressed by other virologists, there was "no scientific evidence" to suggest the virus had come from the Wuhan lab.

Last month, ProPublica in partnership with Vanity Fair published a bombshell report indicating that the origin of COVID-19 was in fact the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

Senate Republicans similarly released a report in October indicating that it was human meddling, not some evolutionary mishap, that was responsible for the pandemic and the loss of over 1 million American lives.

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