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What do the new emails made public say about the origin of SARS-CoV-2?

At the start of the pandemic, did the American health authorities hide from the general public that SARS-CoV-2 could come from a laboratory? This is the conclusion that some draw from a document of ten pages made public on January 11, 2022 by the Republican Party, targeting Anthony Fauci, director of the American National Institute of Infectious Diseases (Niaid), main responsible for the management of the pandemic in the United States.

“We have posted previously unpublished emails showing that the Dr Fauci withheld information about an origin of Covid-19 from the Wuhan laboratory, and intentionally downplayed the thesis of a laboratory leak. « 

This publication comes as the Dr Fauci, auditioned in the US Senate, accuses Republicans of encouraging « Out of whack » to threaten him with death by propagating false accusations about him for months.

What do these documents contain?

The file posted online contains nine emails, received or sent by officials of the American National Institute of Health (NIH), the main medical research agency, including geneticist Francis Collins. Most date back to the very beginning of February 2020, when several international experts in virology, immunology, and evolutionary biology met by teleconference to discuss the possible origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

These emails had already been obtained by the Washington post and Buzzfeed in June 2020, but part of the content was redacted: they are now partially or completely transcribed. Two elements stand out:

  • As already shown by several e-mails made public, the thesis of a virus « released » from a laboratory was taken seriously from the outset by experts, and even sometimes deemed more likely than a zoonosis (disease transmitted from an animal to humans). « For me, it’s 70-30 or 60-40 », wrote virologist Michael Farzan, on 1er February 2020.
  • The NIH lobbied for this lead to be disqualified, via scientific publications or communications from the World Health Organization (WHO). He even reduced it to a « Very destructive conspiracy theory », believing that it would harm scientific research.
Read also Article reserved for our subscribers Origins of Covid-19: the hypothesis of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology relaunched after the disclosure of unpublished work

What do we know about the authenticity of these emails?

They were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, a right to information law that requires US federal agencies to share their documents with anyone who requests them.

None of their authors has contested its authenticity. Virologist Robert Garry has confirmed to be the signer of one of them with The Intercept, but ensure that it is presented  » out of context « . The general tenor of the exchanges corroborates the account of one of the speakers, the British infectious disease specialist Jeremy Farrar, director of the medical charity fund Wellcome Trust, in his book Spike: The Virus vs. The People (Main edition, 2021, untranslated), co-authored with journalist Anjana Ahuja.

He explains that a meeting between experts was indeed held on 1er February remotely, a week after Wuhan (China) entered confinement, to discuss the hypothesis of a virus from a laboratory, with a dozen Western scientists.

Read also Covid-19: Wuhan Institute of Virology official rejects accusations about virus origins

Why do these exchanges seem embarrassing?

In March 2020, Francis Collins will qualify on his blog as « Scandalous » the thesis of a virus coming out of a laboratory. Anthony Fauci affirms ten times that SARS-CoV-2 can only be of natural origin. However, these exchanges show that senior American officials have voluntarily minimized the trail of the laboratory, however raised during these discussions in February.

Likewise, several of the cited scientists will co-sign, in March 2020, in Nature Medicine, an assentant article that« It is unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulations of the SARS-CoV-type coronavirus ». However, the exchanges unveiled by the Republican Party show that they initially leaned for this thesis.

Read also Origins of Covid-19: Joe Biden accuses China of hiding « crucial information »

Why was the trail of a virus coming out of a laboratory considered?

The microbiologists consulted are taken aback by a characteristic of SARS-CoV-2: an atypical genetic sequence in coronaviruses, its furin cleavage site, making it particularly transmissible to humans. Several doubt that its presence could result from a natural evolution, and evoke the thesis of a virus born in laboratory, probably accidentally in contact with human tissue, or within the framework of an experiment of crossing of poorly controlled species.

Virologist Robert Garry writes in these emails that he « Cannot conceive of a plausible scenario [pour la thèse d’un virus] natural ”. Microbiologist Andrew Rambaut says, from an evolutionary biology perspective, the furin cleavage site is « Highly unusual », and suggests that only the Wuhan virologists have the explanation.

Why has this lead been minimized?

These e-mails do not answer this question, due to the lack of full discussions. Two major readings are opposed: the Republicans evoke a voluntary cover-up by senior American officials, which could be explained by embarrassing links with Wuhan. While for the supporters of Anthony Fauci, like Jeremy Farrar, it is about an evolution of the consensus, motivated by scientific reasons as political.

  • According to the republican thesis, a maneuver by Fauci, too linked to the Wuhan laboratory

What both experts and the general public ignore at the 2020 meeting is that the NIH has been funding virological work in Wuhan since 2015, and that in April 2018, the NGO EcoHealth proposed to the US government a project called « Defuse » consisting of « Defuse the threat of bat coronaviruses », against funding of $ 14 million (12.22 million euros). It plans to assess the risks of species crossing in « Introducing cleavage sites specifically suitable for humans » and to test them on transgenic mice. The Wuhan laboratory is cited among the collaborating institutes.

Deemed too risky, this project was turned down by the Agency for Advanced Defense Research Projects (Darpa), the scientific arm of the US military, but the NIH provided funding to the EcoHealth Alliance, with a sub-grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to study bat coronaviruses, eventually admitted the US agency.

This link could, according to the Republican thesis, explain the very oriented communication of Anthony Fauci and the NIH in 2020. Since then, the latter have turned against EcoHealth Alliance and demand explanations on the security of the Wuhan laboratory, deemed to be faulty.

  • According to the Democratic thesis, a lack of proof and the fear of a war

Rather, in his book, Jeremy Farrar describes a collective change of mind. He confirms that several scientists present on the 1er February 2020 on the phone initially leaned for a virus that came out of a laboratory, but that the exchanges have shifted the general consensus towards zoonosis.

A reasoning by the absurd is then essential: why go and look for a virus as little known as RaTG13, which has not even been described yet in the scientific literature, to do experiments, when the reflex would rather be to go look for a pathogen already well known and mastered? As microbiologist Kristian Andersen puts it, it doesn’t stick because « Scientists are lazy ».

Among the most fervent opponents of the thesis of the virus born of human intervention is the Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, himself at the origin, in 2012, of a controversial mutant H5N1 “supervirus” in the scientific community. In these emails, he calls the human origin thesis  » conspiracy theory «  Who « Would do unnecessary harm to science in general and to science in China in particular. » A charge that has, it seems, convinced. At the end of this hour-long teleconference, Jeremy Farrar explains to American officials that he is now shared at « 50-50 », while considering that the mystery may never be lifted.

Read also Origin of SARS-CoV-2: a year and a half later, more questions than answers

Several of the scientists present continued their reflection in an article, « Proximal Origins », published a month later in Nature Medicine. While noting the peculiarity of the furin cleavage site, they finally conclude that it can also have arisen naturally, and that after examination of the hypotheses, the thesis of the zoonosis is the most probable. “We were among the first to take a connection with the lab very seriously. Nonetheless, we found no evidence. It is still true today ”, was already explaining immunologist Kristian G. Andersen in March 2021. « My first impression and those of others about furin was wrong, today confirms Robert Garry to The Intercept. This is how science works. No one was trying to deceive the public. Our best analysis is in “Proximal Origins”, it holds up very well. « 

According to Mr. Farrar, this evolution of the consensus also arranged the American health officials, worried by the populist projections of Donald Trump and his anti-China rhetoric fueled by « Chinese virus ». Several experts feared a war between the two superpowers, and the theory of the virus born in the laboratory was seen as explosive. In an email of February 2, Francis Collins thus associates it with « Voice of the conspiracy » potentially dangerous for « Science and international harmony ».

Do these emails prove the virus originated from the Wuhan lab?

No. « They do not reveal that a laboratory origin would have been hidden, they confirm that some of the people, who today vehemently reject this hypothesis, seriously considered it in January-February 2020. But that does not say anything about it. ‘origin in itself’, specifies at World Florence Débarre, researcher in evolutionary biology at the CNRS.

Indeed, if human intervention is no longer excluded, the question has still not been decided scientifically, and the discovery of new strains of coronavirus even closer to SARS-CoV-2, such as BANAL-52 discovered in Laos, pleads for the track of a natural evolution. « We are continuing our monthly international meetings to try to elucidate the origin of this virus, explains Virginie Courtier, research director and geneticist at the CNRS. The new virus sequences sampled in Laos and southwest China should be able to help us find out more, but analyzes take time.  »

Nanobiologist Michael J. Allen thus recalls the importance of staying “Extremely careful, because there is a lot of politics involved here. The parts [du texte] which remain redacted are the most disturbing, they have no meaning and no conclusions can be drawn until their content has been revealed ”.

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