We have occasionally turned to science writer Matt Ridley for clarity and illumination. He brings both to the latest news about the lab-leak theory of the origin of Covid-19. His Spiked column asks “Why did scientists suppress the lab-leak theory?” Subhead: “In private, they said it was plausible. In public, they called it a conspiracy theory.” Ridley recounts:
In December 2019 there was an outbreak in China of a novel bat-borne SARS-like coronavirus a few miles from the world’s leading laboratory for collecting, studying and manipulating novel bat-borne SARS-like coronaviruses. We were assured by leading scientists in China, the US and the UK that this really was a coincidence, even when the nine closest relatives of the new virus turned up in the freezer of the laboratory in question, at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Now we know what those leading scientists really thought. Emails exchanged between them after a conference call on 1 February 2020, and only now forced into the public domain by Republicans in the US Congress, show that they not only thought the virus might have leaked from a lab, but they also went much further in private. They thought the genome sequence of the new virus showed a strong likelihood of having been deliberately manipulated or accidentally mutated in the lab. Yet later they drafted an article for a scientific journal arguing that the suggestion not just of a manipulated virus, but even of an accidental spill, could be confidently dismissed and was a crackpot conspiracy theory.
Jeremy Farrar – who organised the call on 1 February with Patrick Vallance, Francis Collins, Anthony Fauci and a Who’s Who of virology – had already spilled a few of the beans in his book, Spike, published last year. He wrote that at the start of February 2020 he thought there was a 50 per cent chance the virus was engineered, while Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute was at 60-70 per cent and Eddie Holmes of Sydney University put it at 80 per cent. But some time after the call they all changed their mind. Why? They have never troubled us with an answer.
Now, however, we have an email from Farrar, sent on Sunday 2 February to Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. It recounts the overnight thoughts of two other virologists Farrar had consulted, Robert Garry of Tulane University and Michael Farzan of the Scripps Research Institute, as well as Farrar’s own thoughts. Even after the call, their concern centred on a feature of the SARS-CoV-2 genome that had never been seen in any other SARS-like coronavirus before: the insertion (compared with the closest related virus in bats) of a 12-letter genetic sequence that creates a thing called a furin cleavage site, which makes the virus much more infectious.
This is Ridley’s penultimate paragraph:
The emails unveiled this week reveal no good scientific reason at all for why these leading virologists changed their minds and became deniers rather than believers in even the remote possibility of a lab leak, all in just a few days in February 2020. No new data, no new arguments. But they do very clearly reveal a blatant political reason for the volte-face. Speculating about a lab leak, said Ron Fouchier, a Dutch researcher, might ‘do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular’. Francis Collins was pithier, worrying about ‘doing great potential harm to science and international harmony’. Contradicting Donald Trump, protecting science’s reputation at all costs and keeping in with those who dole out large grants are pretty strong incentives to change one’s mind.
Whole thing here.