Emails recently released have revealed that scientists in Britain and the United States thought that the lab leak theory regarding COVID-19's origins was likely, but were concerned that debate on such theory could cause damage to science both globally, and within China.
New details regarding scientists' stance on the lab leak theory, which theorizes that the COVID-19 virus leaked from a. Laboratory in China, came to light after members of the US Republican House Oversight Committee were granted access to the email documents, after complaining that the content of the emails had been heavily redacted when released under Freedom of Information requests, according to The Telegraph.
The emails were sent in response to a teleconference that occurred between 12 scientists, including the UK Government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on February 1.
On February 2, 2020, Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, sent an email that said "a likely explanation" was that Covid had rapidly evolved from a Sars-like virus inside human tissue in a low-security lab.
The email, sent to Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, continued on to state that such an evolution in the virus may have "accidentally created a virus primed for rapid transmission between humans."
Despite these concerns, a leading scientist told Farrar that "further debate would do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular."
Dr Collins, the former director of the US National Institutes of Health, warned such debate could damage "international harmony."
"These emails show a lamentable lack of openness and transparency among Western scientists who appear to have been more interested in shutting down a hypothesis they thought was very plausible, for political reasons," wrote Viscount Ridley, co-author of Viral: the search for the origin of Covid.
Farrar wrote in the emails that other scientists also believed that the virus could not have evolved naturally. One of these scientists was Professor Mike Farzan, of Scripps Research, the expert who discovered how the original Sars virus binds to human cells.
In particular, scientists were concerned about a part of Covid-19 called the furin cleavage site, "a section of the spike protein which helps it enter cells and makes it so infectious to humans," according to The Telegraph.
"He is bothered by the furin site and has a hard time (to) explain that as an event outside the lab, though there are possible ways in nature but highly unlikely," Farrar wrote in an email, summarizing Farzan's concerns.
"I think this becomes a question of how do you put all this together, whether you believe in this series of coincidences, what you know of the lab in Wuhan, how much could be in nature - accidental release or natural event? I am 70:30 or 60:40," he continued.
By February 4, emails showed that Farrar had revised his estimate on the likelihood of a lab leak, placing its odds at 50:50. Professor Eddie Holmes, of the University of Sydney, on the other hand gave a 60:40 estimate in favor of an accidental release.
Bob Garry, of the University of Texas, was also shown in the emails to not have been convinced that the virus was naturally occurring.
"I just can't figure out how this gets accomplished in nature," he said.
Professor Andrew Rambaut, from the University of Edinburgh, also said that furin cleavage site "strikes me as unusual," according to The Telegraph.
"I think the only people with sufficient information or access to samples to address it would be the teams working in Wuhan," he added.
By February 2, 2020 though, scientists were already attempting to shut down debate regarding whether the virus had leaked from a lab.
"Further debate about such accusations would unnecessarily distract top researchers from their active duties and do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular," An email from Dr Ron Fouchier to Farrar said.
Dr Collins replied to Farrar stating: "I share your view that a swift convening of experts in a confidence-inspiring framework is needed or the voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate, doing great potential harm to science and international harmony."
Rep. James Comer, who secured the unrelated form of the emails, said they showed that experts like Fauci had taken the Wuhan lab leak theory "much more seriously" than they had let on.
Emails released last year showed that Dr. Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a group that was given an NIH grant that was used to support research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology of "SARS-like viruses," personally thanked Fauci over email for calling the theory a "myth."
"As the PI of the R01 grant publicly targeted by Fox News reporters at the Presidential press briefing last night, I just wanted to say a personal thankyou 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," read an email on April 18th, 2020.