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Daily Telegraph Alleges Scientists Suppressed Case for Covid Lab-Leak

The Daily Telegraph reports on “newly released emails from early 2020” involving authors of “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2”, a peer-reviewed correspondence item that was published in Nature Medicine in March 2020 and made the case for the coronavirus being a zoonotic spillover rather than a bio-engineered virus that had escaped from the lab in Wuhan:

The lead author of the paper, Prof Kristian Andersen, of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, had earlier told colleagues that features of the virus looked as if they’d been engineered in a lab.

…In an email chain debating the original draft, one of the authors even admitted that the virus would look the same whether it had evolved naturally or in lab mice in a process known as “serial passaging”

However, no mention of this was made in the paper.

…The email release will add more fuel to accusations that eminent scientists effectively publicly shut down investigations into a lab leak so as not to upset China, while believing privately it was possible.

Lab-leak prononent Matt Ridley followed up with an opinion piece with the inflammatory headline “Top virologists betrayed science with their Covid lab leak cover-up”. The Telegraph has invested heavily in this particular narrative: in September last year it gave us “Scientists created false narrative over suspected Covid leak from Wuhan lab, say experts”, and in June 2020 it tried to bolster a lab-leak theory rejected by peer review by getting a former head of MI6 to give it his irrelevant imprimatur.

In the meantime, scientific research has proceeded apace, with various new articles adding to the evidence of zoonotic spillover and natural origins: these include two 2022 studies (Pekar et al. here and Worobey et al. here) involving “Proximal Origin” authors alongside others, one of which argues that “geographical clustering of the earliest known COVID-19 cases and the proximity of positive environmental samples to live-animal vendors suggest that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the site of origin of the COVID-19 pandemic” (an account that also undercuts the possibility of a non-engineered virus brought from elsewhere leaking from the Wuhan lab). Writing earlier this month, one of the “Proximal Origin” authors laid out the case that “The evidence remains clear: SARS-CoV-2 emerged via the wildlife trade”.

Such studies have largely been ignored by the media, but there doesn’t seem to be much new evidence for a bio-engineered virus either. Instead, then, we have a journalistic quest for “gotchas” intended to undermine the personal integrity of scientists. In case of the new emails (also known in some reports as the “Fauci emails”, due to his involvement in the discussion), the fact that the authors gave due consideration to lab leak theories two and a half years ago is now being weaponised against them.

Fuller coverage of what the emails contain and their significance can be found on Twitter than in sensationalising media reports. In particular, there is a long thread by Angela Rasmussen here, including screenshots. There is nothing to justify the (tellingly unattributed) accusation in the Telegraph that they wanted to “shut down investigations into a lab leak so as not to upset China”. Indeed, Anthony Fauci’s initial reaction was that a group of biologists should get together “to carefully examine the data to determine if [Andersen’s] concerns are validated”, and if so then the authorities should be alerted. The authors also discussed the need for a balanced approach: in one email, from 8 February, Jeremy Farar wrote of the need “to bring a neutral, respected, scientific group together to look at the data and in a neutral, considered way provide an opinion and we hoped to focus the discussion on the science”.

What the emails do confirm, though, is that the authors were impressed by new evidence as it came in. Farrar believed the argument was made “even clearer” by “additional information on the pangolin virus, information not available even 24 hours ago”; Andersen concurred – specifically stating that while he currently didn’t have “high confidence” in anti-lab leak theories, “I am very hopeful that the viruses from pangolins will help provide the mssing pieces”.

This is in accordance with the public record. As reported in the New York Times in March 2021, the authors originally saw “bits of genetic material that looked like they might have been put there through genetic engineering” but then changed their minds in the light of further information (H/T @flodebarre):

Soon afterward, Dr. Holmes helped researchers at the University of Hong Kong analyze a coronavirus, found in a pangolin, that was closely related to SARS-CoV-2. The virus looked especially similar in its surface protein, called spike, which the virus uses to enter cells.

Finding such a distinct biological signature in a virus from a wild animal strengthened Dr. Holmes’s confidence that SARS-CoV-2 was not the product of genetic engineering. “Suddenly what looks odd is clearly natural,” Dr. Holmes said.

Matt Ridley argues that the pangolin evidence “was a red herring”, being “too distantly related, lacking a furin cleavage site, only 2 infected animals, not in Wuhan”. However, as a biologist named Flo Débarre points out, this does not reflect how the pangolin evidence was actually used: the sequences cited were the receptor-binding domains (RBDs). As quoted from “Proximal Origin”:

Although the RaTG13 bat virus remains the closest to SARS-CoV-2 across the genome, some pangolin coronaviruses exhibit strong similarity to SARS-CoV-2 in the RBD, including all six key RBD residues…. This clearly shows that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein optimized for binding to human-like ACE2 is the result of natural selection.

Now, I’m not a scientist, and so I can only appreciate scientific discussion through a glass darkly. However, I can recognise media and activist framings and narrative strategies, and these are why “lab-leak” claims (and wilder “bio-weapon” conspiracy theories) have been so prominent. This aspect is the subject of a Twitter thread by a science blogger named Philipp Markolin here.

UPDATE (January 2023): A fuller account by Markolin can now be seen here.

3 Responses

  1. Of course a conspiracy theorist would insist this article was really written by the 77th Brigade.

    Or the CIA.

    Or even the Chinese Communist Party.

    Whereas the grown-ups know this is merely a summary of what we know was openly discussed, fully aired, and covered in depth at the time, with not a hint of suppression, never mind censorship.

    In fact I could have sworn I’d read the identical facts to these in an article in the Washington Post in the run up to the 2020 US Election.

    In its serialisation of the most significant contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop.

    Oh…

    Wait…..!

  2. “I can recognise media and activist framings and narrative strategies”

    Can’t we all? Except, often, it seems, when the activists concerned are our elected presidents and PMs.

    I still cannot explain the huge overreaction on the part of officialdom to what has turned out to be just another URTI-causing virus, soon and easily put paid to.

    In the absence of a credible explanation for the covid alarmism epidemic within the official narrative, I speculated early on that perhaps “they” knew something sinister about this particular new virus that “they” weren’t telling us. I found plenty of sensational corroboration of the “lab leak” speculation at first, and bookmarked it for scutiny – fact-checking. But none of it was from official sources. When it started to disappear, I became even more suspicious that the “wet fish market” narrative might be the hoax, and the “lab leak” narrative might be the truth. How else to explain the sheer panic on the part of even the normally unflappable then PM, Boris Johson, over a tiny, insignificant, and not very-dangerous new virus?

    I doubt we’ll ever know the truth. But I find it healthy that, at last, a major, serious newspaper is willing to question the official narrative all mainstream media at first parroted, which failed dismally to explain the unprecedented panic spread by politicians, and a press unwilling to exercise a healthy scepticism of the narrative they were being fed by our governments.

    • The two worst aspects of the Scamdemic Panic are, firstly, that the worst case scenario, using inflated guesstimates, of a 100,000 deaths in the UK, and 500,000 deaths in the US, if we did nothing (still went to work when dying, then popped into the nursing home to see granny on the way to the pub) were the reason to throw out existing pandemic plans.

      Which in the US were based on a bad Flu that would kill nearly a million.

      TWICE the worst case Covid deaths projection!

      Secondly, the UK government’s own Office Of National Statistics projected 200,000 deaths from the FIRST lockdown.

      And various academics projected 500,000 deaths from just the first two lockdowns.

      FIVE TIMES the worst case Covid deaths!

      Worse stll, this would be mainly breadwinners and carers, not those already in God’s waiting room, after surviving two mild Flu seasons, and being unlikely to survive the next!!!

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