Click here for part 1 of this series: Cash, COVID, and cover-up, part 1: The questions we should have asked of Fauci about the origins of COVID-19
Click here for part 2 of this series: Cash, COVID, and cover-up, part 2: The gain-of-function controversy
On Jan. 27, 2020, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak sent an email to Dr. David Morens, a subordinate of Dr. Anthony Fauci at NIAID, that contained a not-very-subtle warning. Fauci had not yet been appointed to former President Donald Trump's Coronavirus Task Force and was thus largely unknown to the public at large at this point. Daszak would later become perhaps the most prominent public scientific figure in the world to denounce the lab-leak theory.
He was also, perhaps not coincidentally, the link between U.S. taxpayer dollars and research funded at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — it was through his EcoHealth Alliance that the WIV had received NIAID grants.
As the coronavirus pandemic was emerging in Wuhan and scientists began looking for the source of the outbreak (some of whom were considering the possibility that the virus might have leaked from the WIV), Daszak alerted Morens to a rather explosive fact: The NIAID had, in fact, been funding the WIV indirectly. Not only that, Daszak provided Morens with a handy list of talking points that Fauci could use, if he saw fit, if he was asked about what, exactly, the NIAID had been funding at the WIV.
"Great info, thanks," Morens replied. "[Dr. Fauci] doesn't maintain awareness of these things and doesn't know unless program officers tell him, which they rarely do, since they are across town and may not see him more than once a year, or less."
It is reasonable to assume that, prior to this point, Fauci may not have personally known that NIAID had funded research at the WIV that any reasonable person would have concluded constituted gain-of-function research. However, he certainly knew after this heads-up from Daszak — who was aggressively shaping the public message even this early in the pandemic.
The first officially reported human cases of COVID-19 were identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, although there is evidence the virus was circulating and infecting people at the Wuhan Institute of Virology before December. At the beginning of the month, patient zero, a 55-year-old man from Hubei, went to the hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms. Though the outbreak would later be traced to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, patient zero had not been there. In the next few weeks, more patients would present themselves to the hospital with similar symptoms, and on Dec. 8, 2019, the Wuhan City Health Committee and the World Health Organization reported that 41 people had been tested and confirmed positive for a new viral disease that would come to be called COVID-19.
Reports of this novel coronavirus were of immediate interest to Drs. Fauci, Baric, Daszak, and the other virologists, researchers, and public health officials who had dedicated their lives to studying, controlling, and preventing infectious disease. Their jobs, after all, were to guide the public response to a pandemic. But the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the virus, and the possible, though unproven, connection of its origins to dangerous gain-of-function research — which those involved had an ideological and financial stake in — created a conflict of interest that perhaps motivated their public statements and compromised their official response to COVID-19.
To say that the government has not been voluntarily forthcoming about its response to the COVID-19 pandemic would be to engage in massive understatement. Only a bevy of repeated FOIA requests filed by media and nonprofit organizations, combined with the incessant prying of the DRASTIC internet sleuths, have uncovered as much information as we now have. And what we have represents only a small fraction of the total: enormous portions — perhaps the majority — have been redacted, including entire lengthy emails.
We, ordinary members of the public, remain largely in the dark about what these men and women did and said to each other as they scrambled to formulate a public response to the largest public health emergency in recent memory. For that matter, it seems that another key person appears to have been kept in the dark: former President Donald Trump, who was, if you will recall, the boss of virtually all the government officials involved in these communications. And yet, one searches through these hundreds of pages of released emails in vain for any indication that the president was consulted or even informed about deliberations that were occurring regarding how his administration would handle what would come to be his defining crisis.
While we might know but little of the full picture, what we do know does not look good. In the early days of the pandemic, a group of scientists led by Fauci, Farrar, and Daszak held a number of teleconferences and meetings, over which there remains a blanket of almost total secrecy. The end result of these initial teleconferences is that all the participants would emerge to publicly declare the lab-leak theory a conspiracy, including some (like Dr. Kristian Andersen), who had just days earlier announced that the virus looked potentially engineered.
In the months following these internal discussions, Fauci, Dasak, and other public officials and influential members of the scientific community would coordinate a messaging campaign to discredit the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan lab. Discussion of the lab-leak theory would be shut down in public spaces by their repeated insistence that such questions were conspiracy-theory, fringe ideas that promote disinformation during a global pandemic.
They instead advanced the hypothesis that COVID-19 had natural, or zoonotic origins — that the virus began in some animal host, possibly bats or pangolins, and evolved to become transmissible among humans. This became the prevailing narrative accepted by the media, and those who questioned its truthfulness were smeared as conspiracy theorists and in some cases de-platformed by tech companies for contradicting the opinions of respected, scientific experts and organizations — read: the views endorsed and promoted by government officials like Fauci.
Here is how the plan unfolded.
The chain began in late December 2019. On Dec. 31, 2019, at 8:16 a.m., Dr. Baric emailed Daszak with the subject line, "RE: have you heard any news on this? maybe as many as 27 cases with 7 severe in wuhan---ards like pneumonia." The email contained an update from ProMed, an email list that provides readers all over the world with crowdsourced disease alerts, on the latest news regarding an emerging pneumonia-like disease reported in Wuhan.
Daszak, a zoologist, was the leader of the only U.S.-based nonprofit organization researching coronavirus evolution and transmission in China. He is also a strong proponent of and fundraiser for gain-of-function research. For years, his organization has received federal funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and its sub-agency the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to support research on bat coronaviruses conducted in China. He was on friendly terms with Wuhan researcher Dr. Shi Zhengli, as well as NIAID Director Fauci, and had contacts with both of their colleagues.
He replied to Baric indicating that his EcoHealth colleague Hongying Li was feeding him information on the pneumonia cases in what appeared to be real time. Daszak's emails were made public as part of a records request from U.S. Right to Know.
On Jan. 6, 2020, Daszak replied to an email from Erik Stemmy, the program officer for the Respiratory Diseases Branch Division of Microbiology and Infections Diseases at NIAID, indicating that he had some off-the-record information on the viral outbreak in China. Chinese scientists on Jan. 12 published the genetic sequence of the virus causing the outbreak. EcoHealth Alliance analyzed the Chinese data and determined the virus was related to SARS. Daszak wrote another email to Stemmy informing him that the new virus is "close to SARSr-CoV Rp3 that we published from our past NIAID work. This came from a Rhinolophus bat in S. China." He added that Baric was "already working to reconstruct and rescue the virus in the lab from the sequence, so he can do further work on it."
It would appear that Daszak had early access to information Shi's research team wouldn't make public until Jan. 23, when they reported the genetic sequence for SARS-CoV-2 was 96.2% similar to a previously discovered bat coronavirus called RaTG13. Daszak confirmed as much in another Jan. 9 email exchange with NIAID senior scientific adviser Dr. David Morens, who had emailed Daszak asking if he had any "inside info on this new coronavirus that isn't yet in the public domain."
"Yes — lots of information and I spoke with Erik Stemmy and Alan Embry yesterday before the news was released," Daszak replied. "Erik is my program officer on our coronavirus grant specifically focused on China." These emails were obtained by Judicial Watch.
Later in a Jan. 27 email, Daszak sent Morens talking points on EcoHealth Alliance's work with the Wuhan lab for Fauci to mention "when he's being interviewed re. The new CoV." He highlighted that NIAID had been funding research at the Wuhan lab through EcoHealth Alliance for "the past 5 years" and that the work involves identifying "cohorts of people highly exposed to bats in China" and determining "if they're getting sick from [coronaviruses]."
Daszak also pointed out the "results of our work," which included the discovery of "SARS-related CoVs that can bind to human cells (Published in Nature), and that cause SARS-like disease in humanized mouse models." He was referring to Baric and Shi's 2015 collaborative gain-of-function study.
From the beginning, Daszak sought to influence the messaging around his work in China, casting it in the most positive light.
"Great info, thanks," Morens replied. "[Dr. Fauci] doesn't maintain awareness of these things and doesn't know unless program officers tell him, which they rarely do, since they are across town and may not see him more than once a year, or less."
The early work of scientists to identify SARS-CoV-2 and trace its origins inevitably attracted the attention of the media. Science magazine published an article on Jan. 31 detailing those efforts, covering Shi's work and leaning in to the emerging hypothesis that the virus occurred naturally in bats and made the leap to infect humans. The article also briefly discussed "conspiracy theories" linking China's coronavirus research to weapons research. At the time there were unsubstantiated claims that China engineered the virus at the Wuhan lab as a bioweapon, but soon the "conspiracy theory" label would be expanded to any suggestion that the virus originated in the lab, no matter how credentialed those promoting the idea were or how carefully they avoided drawing conclusions.
The Science article did note that there were concerns about the Wuhan lab's security and gain-of-function research. Dr. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and a critic of gain-of-function experiments, was quoted suggesting that data on SARS-CoV-2 was "consistent with entry into the human population as either a natural accident or a laboratory accident."
The mere suggestion that it was possible for COVID-19 to come from a laboratory accident drew immediate, fierce attack from Daszak.
"Every time there's an emerging disease, a new virus, the same story comes out: This is a spillover or the release of an agent or a bioengineered virus," Daszak told Science. "It's just a shame. It seems humans can't resist controversy and these myths, yet it's staring us right in the face."
This unjustified, angry reaction to a reasonable point was a prelude to what was to come.
At 8:43 p.m. on Jan. 31, the Science article was emailed to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in turn forwarded it to several of his NIH colleagues and associates, including Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the London-based Wellcome Trust megacharity, and to Dr. Kristian Andersen, a respected virologist at Scripps Research. Fauci's emails were made public via a Freedom of Information Act Request from BuzzFeed News.
Andersen, who had studied the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2, wrote back praising the article but adding an astounding claim: He had analyzed the genetic sequences from China and determined that "some of the features (potentially) look engineered." He told Fauci that "after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike and myself all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory," before adding that "those opinions could still change." According to reporter Nicholas Wade, Eddie is Edward C. Holmes of the University of Sydney, Bob is Robert F. Garry of Tulane University, and Mike is Michael Farzan at Scripps Research.
Andersen would later walk back what he said privately, claiming that he and other scientists strongly considered the lab-leak possibility before evidence convinced them that the natural origins theory was more likely.
But in that moment, Fauci was told the unanimous opinion of several well-respected virologists was that the virus causing a growing pandemic was possibly engineered. The fact that the viral outbreak happened just 20 miles away from a laboratory conducting coronavirus research, research his agency may have funded, put him into action.
The next morning, Saturday, Feb. 1, Fauci sent an urgent email to NIAID principal director Hugh Auchincloss, writing, "It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on ... read this paper as well as the e-mail that I will forward to you now. You will have tasks today that must be done." Attached was a copy of Baric's and Shi's 2015 collaborative gain-of-function study, which stated in its acknowledgements that it was funded by NIAID and exempted from a moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research that was in effect at the time. Fauci also forwarded the study to the Wellcome Trust's Farrar. Fauci told Farrar the study was "of interest to the current discussion."
Auchincloss replied a few hours later: "The paper you sent me says the experiments were performed before the gain of function pause but have since been reviewed and approved by NIH. Not sure what that means since Emily is sure that no Coronavirus work has gone through the P3 framework. She will try to determine if we have any distant ties to this work abroad."
NIAID was tied to that work. Documents obtained by Judicial Watch show that NIAID awarded a 10-year grant to Peter Daszak to study bat coronaviruses in the East, and that between 2014 and 2019, $826,300 had been sub-awarded by EcoHealth Alliance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Did NIAID fund an experiment at the Wuhan lab that engineered this new SARS-like virus? This would be the question on Fauci's mind as he prepared for a teleconference later that day with well-known and highly respected global virologists to discuss the emerging pandemic.
The teleconference was organized by Jeremy Farrar, who like Fauci is an enormously important gatekeeper of billions of dollars for medical research. Information to be discussed on the call would be "shared in total confidence and not to be shared until agreement on next steps," a Feb. 1 email blast Fauci received explained. Farrar would lead the conference and present the "introduction, focus, and desired outcomes." Andersen would be summarizing what he and the other virologists had analyzed about the virus. What was said exactly is unknown, as an email summary of the call was redacted, as well as notes taken by Ron Fouchier, the Dutch scientist who authored a highly controversial gain-of-function study in 2011.
What is known is that following this conference call, the public campaign against the lab-leak theory intensified. Many of the participants who voiced concerns that the virus looked engineered abruptly changed their positions.
Andersen, for example, was recruited by Daszak to consult on drafting a "statement in support of the scientists, public health and medical professionals of China." Just four days after writing to Fauci about the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 virus looks "engineered," Andersen in a Feb. 4, 2020, email recommended to Daszak that the statement "be more firm on the question of engineering."
"The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to the virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case," he wrote, reversing his position.
Farrar, meanwhile, was contacted by NIH Director Francis Collins on Feb. 2 about the need to get in touch with World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "Let me know if I can help get through his thicket of protectors," Collins wrote to Farrar, copying Fauci on the email. "Really appreciate us thinking through the options ...," he said in another email, before a redacted line.
Later that day, Farrar emailed Fauci and Collins, writing: "Tedros and [WHO representative in China Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer] have apparently gone into conclave ... 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." At the end of the email, Farrar wrote "meanwhile" and included a link to a ZeroHedge article published that day that reported on claims that COVID-19 was engineered in the Wuhan lab.
The very next day, Tedros delivered a speech to the WHO executive board stating the need to "combat the spread of rumors and misinformation."
"We have worked with Google to make sure people searching for information about coronavirus see WHO information at the top of their search results," Tedros said. "Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tencent, and TikTok have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation."
On that same day, ZeroHedge was banned from Twitter for publishing a "coronavirus conspiracy theory."
The campaign was beginning to work.
Meanwhile, Daszak worked in the background to recruit more colleagues and associates to sign his statement, which was intended to authoritatively discredit the lab-leak hypothesis. In emails, Daszak wrote that he wanted the statement to "not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person" but rather to be seen as "simply a letter from leading scientists." He also emphasized how important it was "to avoid the appearance of a political statement."
Baric, a leading gain-of-function researcher, was also consulted for the draft, but Daszak told him it would be best if he didn't add his name to it "so it has some distance from us and therefore doesn't work in a counterproductive way." Baric agreed in reply, writing, "otherwise it looks self-serving and we lose impact."
Likewise, Andersen did not sign the final product. He later claimed in a since-deleted tweet that he didn't attach his name to the letter "because I (+ coauthors) found it premature to conclude there was no lab leak without carefully analyzing available data first." He has never explained why it was not "premature" for him to help draft the statement.
The completed statement was published in the Lancet on Feb. 19 with 27 prominent public health scientists signing on to condemn "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."
The importance of this event cannot be overstated.
The Lancet letter was instrumental in shaping the media narrative condemning all discussion of the lab-leak theory as conspiratorial, fringe, and otherwise harmful. To quote a landmark Vanity Fair article about the investigation into the origins of COVID-19, Daszak's Lancet letter "effectively ended the debate over COVID-19's origins before it began."
Farrar, also a signatory of the Lancet statement, was working behind the scenes to discredit the lab-leak hypothesis, too. A spokesman for his office told the Daily Mail in June that Farrar recruited five scientists to author a letter to the scientific journal Nature Medicine that would argue for the natural origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Two of those scientists, Andersen and Holmes, attended the Feb. 1 teleconference and had before that conference believed the virus looked "potentially" engineered.
Incredibly, Farrar admits to the fact that he signed the Lancet letter even though, by his own estimation, he was "50-50" on the question of the lab-leak theory after the Feb. 1 teleconference with Fauci, and he further admits now that he cannot definitely make a statement one way or the other. Perhaps most astonishingly, Farrar's memoir "Spike," which discusses his ruminations at length about the lab-leak theory, fails to even mention the Lancet letter or his signature on it.
Not content with relying on the Lancet letter, the scientists who were involved in the mysterious Feb. 1 teleconference launched other avenues of attack. On Feb. 26, 2020, Emerging Microbes and Infections published another influential article titled, "No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2." The paper was written by Shan-Lu Liu, Linda J. Saif, Susan R. Weiss, and Lishan Su. Christian Drosten, Germany's leading COVID-19 expert and a participant in Farrar's conference call, sits on the editorial board for EMI. This paper, if possible, represented an even more obvious exercise in wagon-circling and hiding conflicts of interest.
Lishan Su, it should be noted, was a colleague and coworker of Dr. Ralph Baric at UNC up until 2020, a fact not mentioned in the paper even though the primary purpose the paper served was to exonerate Baric and his work. Even more astonishingly, Baric was consulted beforehand about what the paper should say. According to emails unearthed by U.S. Right to Know, Baric was provided with an advance copy of the paper by Su and asked for comments and revisions.
Perhaps understanding how bad such an arrangement would look, Baric responded to Su's request that he review the paper by saying, "sure, but I don't want to be cited in (sic) as having commented prior to submission." Su agreed to keep Baric's name out of the paper, and Baric agreed to redline the paper that would exonerate him. Bizarrely, Baric attempted to claim in one comment that the SHC014-MA15 virus that he created with Shi decreased the pathogenicity of the virus, rather than increased, as it clearly did. Baric's comment confused the authors of the EMI paper, who ultimately rejected that particular edit.
Incredibly, Baric was not the only gain-of-function researcher asked to review the draft. His Chinese counterpart, Shi Zhengli, was also approached by the authors for edits to their work and, like Baric, her involvement was not acknowledged by the paper's authors. Another document discovered by U.S. Right to Know shows that Shi made three substantial edits to an early draft of the EMI commentary. U.S. Right to Know summarized her edits as follows:
Shi proposed three edits of note. First, she proposed changing the presentation of the number of nucleotides that differed between RaTG13, which was the closest relative of SARS-CoV-2 identified at that time, and SARS-CoV-2. The authors wrote this difference was "greater than 1000 nucleotides." Shi proposed deleting "1000" and replacing it with "1100" nucleotides. This edit appears to maximize the presentation of the difference between the two viruses.
Second, Shi proposed deleting a paragraph discussing the mouse-adapted SARS-CoV virus, MA15 (that had been used in Ralph Baric's lab in collaboration with Shi), and how its serial passage had increased viral replication and lung pathology in mice. This appears to be an effort at distancing from the gain-of-function debate surrounding the research done together by Shi, Baric and the EcoHealth Alliance.
Third, Shi edited a statement on bats as natural reservoirs, and civets as intermediate hosts, of SARS-CoV.
Shi's second edit is most concerning. While the paper authors ultimately rejected her suggestion to cut the paragraph discussing her prior work with Baric, the fact that she wished the commentary to ignore that gain-of-function research demonstrates her desire to keep her research obscured — for what purpose?
The paper was finished on Feb. 13, 2020, and Shan-Lu Liu, who also serves as EMI's editor-in-chief, wrote a bizarre email recommending publication of what he described as "timely commentary... perfectly written" from himself to ... himself.
Unsurprisingly, the paper, which never disclosed Baric nor Shi's involvement, was published a couple weeks later.
But between the time the article was finalized and the time it was published, the paper's authors privately expressed doubts to each other about its conclusions, even as EMI was rushing to expedite publication of the commentary and waiving customary publication fees. Shan Lu acknowledged to Weiss in a Feb. 16 email that they "could not rule out the possibility" that the virus escaped from the lab, which led to changes to the paper that focused on refuting the idea that the virus had been engineered in a lab, as opposed to merely having escaped from the lab. But some of the papers' authors continued to harbor doubts about this possibility, as well.
On Feb. 16, Weiss emailed Shan-Lu Liu, still expressing her "doubt" that the virus was engineered in the lab, but noting regarding the distinctive furin cleavage site, "lineage B Bat viruses generally do not have the furin site."
Five days later, Shan Lu responded, "Susan, I completely agree with you, but rumor says that furin site may be engineered. Importantly, the virus RNA sequence around the furin site (288 nt), before and after, has 6.6 % differences, but with no amino acid changes at all."
Weiss then responded, "Henry and I have been speculating- how can that site have appeared at S1/S2 border- I hate to think to [sic] was engineered- among the MHV strains, the cleavage site does not increaser pathogenicity while it does effect entry route (surface vs endosome) . so for me the only significance of this furin site is as a marker for where the virus came from- frightening to think it may have been engineered[.]"
None of these doubts or concerns would be mentioned when, five days later, the paper, "No credible evidence supporting claims of the laboratory engineering of SARS-CoV-2," was released.
On Mar. 6, Andersen emailed Fauci, Farrar, and Collins announcing that his letter had been accepted by Nature Medicine and would be published shortly. He encouraged them to provide comments or suggestions about the paper or its press release. Two days later, Fauci replied, "Nice job on the paper."
This third article, "The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2," was published March 17. Farrar's name was not attached to it. "We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible," the authors wrote, in what would became the most-cited scientific document discrediting the lab-leak hypothesis. National media outlets seized on the letter, often referring to it as a "study," as the final word on COVID-19's origins. Anyone who offered a contrary opinion, including President Donald Trump, was dismissed as ignorant, anti-science, conspiracy-minded, and racist as far as the media were concerned. And they'd be censored on social media too.
The Proximal Origins letter was championed by opponents of the lab-leak theory.
Fauci, who by now was the chief spokesman for the White House at the daily coronavirus response briefings and the nationally recognized face of the government's pandemic response, endorsed the letter on April 18 and publicly rejected the lab-leak hypothesis. Fauci did not mention that he was involved with the authors.
In an email after that press briefing, Daszak wrote to Fauci with glowing praise for his remarks.
"I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology," Daszak wrote.
"From my perspective, your comments are brave, and coming from your trusted voice, will help dispel the myths being spun around the virus' origins," he added.
Daszak was thrilled because the most important and influential voice during the pandemic said that "science" had determined SARS-CoV-2 was not engineered in a lab. As far as he knew, the lab-leak theory was defeated. The United States government would support that conclusion in an April 30 statement endorsing the "scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified."
The actual evidence presented by the "Proximal Origins" paper, however, was almost farcically thin. The bulk of the paper discussed the basis for a possible zoonotic origin of the virus — which will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent parts of this series. As for the scientific evidence discrediting the possibility that the virus was engineered, Andersen and his fellow authors raised exactly two points.
First, the paper claimed, "While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal7 and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding7,11. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation."
Stripped of dense scientific language, the authors essentially argue that, while SARS-cov-2 is extremely effective at infecting human cells, it is not as effective as it could be, and thus if someone was trying to engineer a virus that was as infectious as possible, they would have done better. This may or may not constitute "strong evidence" that the virus was engineered specifically as a bioweapon, but it ignores the fact that viruses are engineered by the scientists who perform gain-of-function research for a whole host of reasons, including to develop vaccines and treatment modalities. It also ignores the somewhat obvious fact that a person who was, in fact, seeking to create a bioweapon might want to maintain some plausible deniability that it was not, in fact, an intentional bioweapon.
Second, the paper claimed, "Furthermore, if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone." This contention, however, is definitely four words too short, because it fails to finish, "that we know of." The idea that the genomic database — particularly of backbones that might have been generated in Wuhan — can be relied upon for completeness is absolutely ludicrous given what we know now. For just one example, the infamous chimeric virus created by Baric and Shi in their 2015 paper was "inadvertently" not uploaded to any databases until after the current pandemic began and people began asking uncomfortable questions.
But, while the actual contentions of the paper were laughably weak, they were hidden behind a patina of dense scientific lingo and an air of authority and certainty, which was enough to convince the media and social media companies.
There were still voices arguing that the lab-leak theory shouldn't be dismissed. Trump drew fire for contradicting his administration with claims that he had seen evidence that COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan lab. When the media demanded the president offer proof, he said he was "not allowed" to share the evidence with them. Already antagonized by the president, the national media doubled down on their efforts to declare him a liar, as well as anyone who agreed with him.
In the months following, Fauci and other public health officials continued to dismiss the lab-leak theory as a conspiracy theory. In May, Columbia University virologist and Proximal Origins author Ian W. Lipkin thanked Fauci for his "efforts in steering and messaging."
As summer drew to a close, the lab-leak theory appeared to be thoroughly discredited. Gain-of-function research was safe. In August 2020, NIAID awarded 11 new grants with a total first-year value of $17 million to 10 participants for a global network to investigate viruses and other deadly pathogens emerging in the wild. Kristian Andersen and Peter Daszak, who worked with Fauci on messaging about the origins of the coronavirus, were among the recipients of this funding.
Only recently, more than a year after the beginning of the pandemic, is discussion of the lab-leak theory permitted in the mainstream because proponents of the natural origins theory have been unable to prove their claims. In May 2021, several influential scientists including Dr. Ralph Baric, the leading coronavirus researcher in the United States, signed a letter in Science magazine calling for a full investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter acknowledged that both the natural origins and lab-leak theories "remain viable" and that the two theories "were not given balanced consideration" at the onset of the pandemic.
Further demonstrating that discussion of the lab-leak theory is now officially acceptable, a declassified summary of a U.S. intelligence report on the origins of the coronavirus requested by President Joe BIden and released last Friday did not draw definitive conclusions but left open the possibility that the virus was leaked from the Wuhan lab.
Discussion of both theories should be welcomed, as it is of paramount importance to learn how the coronavirus pandemic began so that a future pandemic can be prevented or stopped before millions of lives are lost.
What is troubling is that there was no obvious, science-based reason for any of the officials and scientific experts involved to want to prevent public discussion of the theory last year after the onset of the pandemic. Preventing public discussion of alternate theories of the virus' origin served no scientific purpose at all. It did not advance our understanding of the virus or how to treat it.
There is, however, a clear political purpose to preventing discussion of the lab-leak theory, one that served the interests of the scientists involved in promoting and funding coronavirus research in China and, to the shame of journalists responsible for holding the powerful accountable, one that went unscrutinized for more than a year as the pandemic raged.
Editor's note: This article was updated on Sept. 29, 2021 to include new information on Shi Zhengli's previously unreported contributions to an Emerging Microbes & Infections commentary.
Click here for part 4 of this series: Cash, COVID, and cover-up, part 4: The virus that didn't bark