If there’s any scandal revealed by the emails of Anthony Fauci, recently released after a Freedom of Information Act request by journalists, it’s that scientists were clueless at the start of the pandemic. They didn’t know what to do about it, or where it came from. Both conservative and liberal-leaning pundits have spun the email release to different ends—either revealing that Fauci hid critical information from the world, or that he was a nice guy who worked hard and still had time to answer emails.
Those saying Fauci “knew from the beginning” of covid’s possible origin in a Wuhan lab, which has been neither proven nor disproven, cite an email from Scripps Research biologist Kristian Andersen who wrote to Fauci in January 2020 that the virus’s genetic information looked “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” and that “one has to look really closely at all of the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.” This is not a scientific conclusion but a single expert’s preliminary opinion. It would be irresponsible to throw around accusations based on this email. Moreover, Andersen argued in a scientific paper published in Nature in March 2020 that the genomic sequences point to a natural origin. Neither his initial email or his subsequent paper should be taken as the last word.
Even now, the jury is out on the virus’s origin and whether its genome holds an answer. I asked virologist David Sanders of Purdue University about suggestions of artificial manipulation that showed up in an article by researcher Yuri Deigin and was later presented by science writer Nicholas Wade. One main argument is that there’s a distinguishing feature that separates Sars-CoV-2 from its closest cousins, a ‘furin cleavage site’, which allows the virus to hijack a protein in our cells, called furin, to activate itself. Other viruses have other ways to do the same thing.
Sanders told me he still thinks these features could have come from evolution. Sometimes products of evolution look unlikely. As creationists have often argued, what are the odds that evolution can produce a miracle like the eye? Yet, our scientific consensus holds that it happened. In the same way, said Sanders, evolution could very well land on one of the few combinations of genes that would create a coronavirus that was highly transmissible among humans. It also may have produced many that weren’t and caused no pandemic.
At the same time, there’s attention on the fact that no plausible scenario has been found for a natural origin of the disease either. The virus looks similar to coronaviruses from horseshoe bats, and these bats don’t live in Wuhan. However, collections of such viruses had been stored at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The virus could conceivably have been artificially altered in virology experiments going on there—or it could be a natural virus that had been collected and stored at the facility.
We still don’t know. What Fauci’s emails show is that he has been learning along with the rest of us. If he owes the public an explanation, it’s for why he approved funding for research that potentially made viruses more dangerous—‘gain of function’ research.
Though Fauci has been unofficially anointed America’s “top expert in infectious disease” by the press, his real job is as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In that capacity, he’s not above criticism. He’s approved funding of virus projects that other scientists have deemed too risky to conduct.
These risky projects include several that Rutgers University biologist Richard Ebright calls “gain of function research of concern”—projects that have altered flu viruses to transmit between different hosts, for example, and research on altering bat coronaviruses that was done in collaboration between US researchers and those in China. Ebright spent years warning people about gain-of-function research long before this pandemic broke out. Another scientist who worries about the danger of such experiments is Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.
Though the lab leak theory has been embraced more on America’s political right, Ebright says it was Republican hawks under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who pushed for the NIH to fund more of the sort of research that could have both health and bio-weapon applications—or could be seen as defensive against biological attack. And it was academics on the left who warned this work could endanger our safety in the name of improving it.
Some researchers justified these projects as a way to stay ahead of the enemy, whether that was governmental or natural. Even if this pandemic coronavirus did not come from that kind of research, those efforts haven’t done much to help us here. As those Fauci emails show, we were always many steps behind it.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
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