IAN BIRRELL: Why DID they try to silence fears Covid leaked from lab?
IAN BIRRELL: Why DID the science establishment try so hard to silence those who feared Covid had leaked from China lab?
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the world-famous Wellcome Trust, has condemned the policy failures of politicians in the pandemic while preaching a gospel of accountability so we learn the lessons of this public health catastrophe. His words have immense impact.
An expert in tropical diseases and adviser to the World Health Organisation, he is probably Britain’s most influential scientist as head of our biggest charity that put £1.2billion last year into medical and scientific research.
Farrar was also a member of the Sage advisory committee until he resigned last year shortly after publishing a rather self-aggrandising book entitled ‘Spike: The Virus v The People’.
‘Everyone needs to learn the lessons, scientists included,’ he wrote, attacking Boris Johnson for the ‘disgrace’ of delaying a public inquiry into the pandemic until it has ended. ‘We only honour the dead by pledging to learn from the mistakes that cost them their lives.’
Few would argue with such fine words. So how strange this same man now stands accused of playing a role in delaying investigations into the pandemic origins.
Science depends on sharing data, fierce debate and challenging evidence – and few scientific investigations are more important than discovering the origins of Covid to help guard against future disasters.
Yet Farrar agreed with other top British and US scientists to label as ‘conspiracy theory’ any suggestions the novel strain of coronavirus responsible might be linked to a laboratory incident in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where it first emerged.
P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province
This was confirmed again this week when Republican members of Congress released previously redacted snippets of email discussions providing fresh evidence of how these experts privately feared the new virus showed signs of lab manipulation while publicly condemning such theories.
They even admitted they were concerned such a ‘destructive’ debate might harm science in general and their colleagues in Chinese science in particular.
Their disturbing actions – and shameful appeasement of China – have not only hampered global understanding of this destructive new disease, but also gravely damaged faith in science at a time when such trust has never been more vital.
There are now two core questions over the birth of this pandemic: did Covid emerge through some kind of scientific mishap or through natural transmission from animals?
And why did the science establishment work so hard to silence dissident voices? Indeed, it seems incredible that not only does Farrar remain in a job in which he directs so much crucial medical research, but even saw his annual salary rise by £28,000 to £512,000 last year, according to latest accounts.
For Sir Jeremy is a pivotal figure in the sequence of secretive events that followed the emergence of a new disease in Wuhan in late 2019.
Many of the growing concerns revolve around a secretive teleconference Farrar led on February 1 2020, as fears over the emerging pandemic exploded.
And the more we learn through leaks, freedom of information requests, interviews and tenacious investigations, the more it smacks of an establishment conspiracy to stifle debate over high-risk science – ironically by accusing those who challenge the consensus of being conspiracy theorists.
Pictured: Workers are seen next to a cage with mice (R) inside the P4 laboratory in Wuhan
The call involved the two most influential scientists in America – controversial presidential adviser Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Francis Collins, then head of the US major funding body financially supporting high-risk research into bat coronaviruses conducted in Wuhan – plus 11 experts including Sir Patrick Vallance, our government’s chief scientific adviser.
We know from Farrar’s book and previous email disclosures that several key participants, including Farrar, were concerned the deadly new virus was linked to research in Wuhan, home to several labs carrying out research into bat coronaviruses.
One Australian-based virologist said he was ‘80 per cent sure this thing had come out of a lab’ while another key participant was ‘60 to 70 per cent’ convinced.
After their hour-long discussion, Farrar remained uncertain, saying ‘this will remain grey unless there is access to the Wuhan lab’.
Yet, following that call and the airing of those views, the scientists’ public stance changed with bizarre speed for such a vexatious scientific conundrum – especially given the lack of data from Wuhan or any assistance from Beijing.
They began publishing punchy statements dismissing lab leaks in the most prestigious science journals, some of which have extensive commercial ties to China.
And they were backed by patsy politicians and supine journalists, whose hostility was inflamed by then President Donald Trump’s allegations about the ‘China virus’. The result was this vital debate was set back at least a year.
Farrar and two other Wellcome Trust experts signed a key statement in the Lancet medical journal praising Chinese efforts to tackle the disease while saying they ‘strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid does not have a natural origin’.
(L-R) Arancha Gonzalez Laya, Executive Director, International Trade Centre (ITC), Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman, A.T. Kearney and Jeremy Farrar, Director, Wellcome Trust
It later emerged the article was covertly organised within days of the call by Peter Daszak, a British scientist whose New York organisation funnelled US funds to research partners at Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s top biosafety lab.
Farrar also quietly assisted five scientists, four of whom were on that call, to write a commentary in Nature Medicine that firmly stated the authors ‘do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible’.
This hugely-influential statement has been accessed 5.62 million times and cited by more than 2,000 academic papers.
One of the quintet, a Texas microbiologist called Robert Garry, later said the first draft was completed on the day of that secretive call.
The Daily Mail’s sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, was a lonely voice in this country as it worked with a few brave scientists and researchers to challenge China’s lies, winkle out evidence of US funding ties to Wuhan and expose glaring conflicts of interest among key figures in this tawdry saga.
Yet when I submitted FOI requests for relevant email discussions involving Sir Patrick, I received page after page of redacted documents, as did US investigators seeking to discover why all these experts suddenly switched tack.
Edinburgh University also refused to share data on the dubious grounds that disclosure might ‘endanger’ the health or safety of Andrew Rambaut, a biologist who was on the conference call and a joint author of that Nature Medicine article.
Now, courtesy of some US Congress members, we have a few more details that serve to fuel concerns over the divergence between what leading scientists said in public and private – although most of the text remains redacted.
One note sent by Farrar the day after their call said Garry was struggling ‘to think of a plausible natural scenario’ to explain the ‘furin cleavage site’ – a feature not found on similar types of coronavirus that lets it enter more efficiently into human cells.
Rambaut, co-signatory of that article dismissing lab links, said on the same day he remained ‘agnostic’ although struck by the ‘unusual’ furin cleavage site.
And perhaps the biggest clue as to what was behind this came from Ron Fouchier, a pioneer of risky ‘gain of function’ research to boost infectivity of bat viruses to humans, when he said ‘further debate’ over the virus being engineered would ‘distract top researchers from their active duties and do unnecessary harm to science in general and China in particular’.
Thankfully, the ground has shifted to ensure more acceptance of the lab leak hypothesis, especially since there remains no firm evidence to support theories of natural animal to human transmission.
Concerns escalated after disclosures that Daszak even sought US funding in 2018 to work in Wuhan on a scheme to insert rare cleavage sites into SARS-like coronaviruses collected in the field, then run experiments on live bats.
This debate goes on but, regardless of its conclusion, it underlines the need to regulate the wilder frontiers of science. Those science leaders who fail to do so show contempt for those who legitimately challenge them and for the public.
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