Thousands of pages of emails exchanged by US infectious diseases czar Anthony Fauci have fanned the flames of the lab leak origin theory of the novel coronavirus. Now out in the public domain, they have given rise to claims on social media that the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) was part of efforts to cover up the tracks that probably lead to the doors of the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the site from where the virus emerged. However, this version of events remains in the realm of speculation with conclusive evidence yet to be found to support it. Fauci for his part, has called for a deeper probe into the origins of the pandemic.
How Did Fauci’s Official Mail Come Out?
The emails were not really leaked, but their redacted versions were obtained by US-based media outlets The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News via Freedom of Information Act requests. Both outlets published the information they received on June 1. The emails, all from last year, cover the early day of the pandemic and give an insight into how Fauci went about dealing with an unfolding crisis.
According to factcheck.org, the separate tranches of mails obtained by the two media outlets date more or less to the January-June 2020 period. BuzzFeed News has put out all the 3,234 pages of emails it received on a separate site.
What Do They Say About Lab Leak?
Proponents of the theory that the novel coronavirus came out of the Wuhan lab situated on the outskirts of the city where the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in December 2019 point to a specific email exchange between Fauci and a virologist associated with the Scripps Research Institute in California.
On January 31, 2020, Kristian Andersen, the Scripps researcher, wrote to Fauci that, “The unusual features of the virus (Sars-CoV-2) make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all of the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered".
It is, of course, the term “engineered" that has got the lab leak supporters sit up and take notice. But what they said was really amiss was how, in a matter of weeks, Andersen had made a complete volte face.
An article in the journal Nature Medicine in March last year had Andersen and other scientists say that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible". That, they added, is because they had “observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features… in related coronaviruses in nature". Their stand, therefore, was that the virus may have originated through “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer,” or “natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer". While Andersen and some fellow researchers agreed that Sars-CoV-2 originated in bats, they believed it jumped to humans from another intermediary animal host.
But it is the failure so far to point out what that intermediary animal host was that has fuelled claims that the virus originated in a lab.
As Fauci’s emails became available publicly, Andersen was called upon to explain how he reversed his point of view. In his defence, the Scripps researcher drew attention to the remaining part of that same January 31, 2020, mail he had written to Fauci. He had added in it that “we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change". Which is precisely what happened and he dismissed the lab leak theory as being improbable.
Dismissing claims that researchers had been in a hurry to rule out the lab leak hypothesis, Andersen clarified that the process at which they arrived at their stand was “a textbook example of the scientific method where a preliminary hypothesis is rejected in favour of a competing hypothesis as more data become available and analyses are completed".
What Is Fauci’s Stand?
As the pandemic drove governments and the common people to their wits’ end, Fauci appeared to be the go-to person for all things Covid-19, delivering advice in a responsible and measured voice. However, as speculation mounted vis-a-vis the lab leak theory, the infectious diseases expert who has served under every US president since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s found that he, too, was under the lens of conspiracy theorists.
It did not help that the National Institutes of Health, under which Fauci’s NIAID operates, was found to have funded the Wuhan lab’s virology work. While it has not been established that US dollars went into any controversial ‘gain-of-function’ research that the Chinese lab is alleged to have been doing, calls nonetheless have come from Republican lawmakers seeking Fauci’s ouster.
Although Fauci was seen as having dismissed the lab leak hypothesis out of hand in the initial days, he has said now that a proper investigation should be held into the origins of the virus. The US is looking to get to the bottom of the issue with President Joe Biden having directed the US intelligence community to vigorously investigate the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.