Fauci shut down lab leak theory despite scientists lending it credence, emails show

Scientists consulting with the U.S. government early in the pandemic believed COVID-19 originating from a lab in Wuhan, China, was possible or even likely, but Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins worked to shut the hypothesis down, according to several emails.

The emails were revealed Tuesday in a letter from Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking member on House Judiciary Committee, and GOP Rep. James Comer, the ranking member on House Oversight Committee. Some of the emails included notes from a Feb. 1, 2020, conference call in which at least 11 scientists theorized about the virus's origin, with many leaning toward the lab leak theory.

"[The emails] reveal that Dr. Fauci was warned of two things: (1) the potential that COVID-19 leaked from the Wuhan Institute Virology (WIV) and (2) the possibility that the virus was intentionally genetically manipulated," the lawmakers said.

Republicans said the Department of Health and Human Services made the unredacted versions of the emails available only behind closed doors, and so, committee staff hand-copied them. The emails appear to show that although Collins, the now-former head of the National Institutes of Health, and Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, worked behind the scenes to cast down on the lab leak possibility, they had good reason to believe it was plausible.

Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, sent an email to Collins, Fauci, and Lawrence Tabak (then the principal deputy director of the NIH and now its acting director) on Feb. 2, 2020, summarizing the conference call and indicating that some of the scientists believed the lab leak theory was viable. Farrar noted, for example, that Mike Farzan (dubbed the "discoverer of SARS receptor" and a professor of immunology at Scripps Research) found a key aspect of the virus "highly unlikely" to have developed outside a lab.

"So, I think it 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," Farrar recounted Farzan saying on the call.

Another scientist on the call, Tulane Medical School microbiology professor Robert Garry, said he could see no "plausible natural scenario" for key amino acids and nucleotides to have been inserted into a bat virus to make it the virus that would go on to kill more than 5 million people worldwide.

But in another email from the same day referenced in the lawmakers' letter, Ron Fouchier, the deputy head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience, seemed to embrace the theory that the virus occurred naturally and warned that lab leak discussions could "do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular."

Collins sent an email back to Farrar, Fauci, and Tabak that day, saying he was "coming around to the view that a natural origin is more likely" and alluding to the lab leak hypothesis as a "conspiracy theory."

"I share your view that a swift convening of experts in a confidence inspiring framework (World Health Organization) seems really the only option) is needed, or the voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate, doing great potential harm to science and international harmony," he wrote.

Yet another email, this one from Collins to Fauci and others and dated April 16, 2020, showed him trying to push back against reporting from Bret Baier of Fox News on the lab leak theory. Baier cited multiple sources who had been briefed at the beginning on the origins of the virus and believed it had sprung from the lab.

"Wondering if there is something NIH can do to help put down this very destructive conspiracy, with what seems to be growing momentum," Collins wrote. "I hoped the Nature Medicine article [casting doubt on the lab leak theory] on the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 would settle this. But probably didn't get much visibility. Anything more we can do? Ask the National Academy to weigh in?"

A day later, Fauci replied to his boss in an email released by the GOP lawmakers.

"I would not do anything about this right now," Fauci wrote. "It is a shiny object that will go away in time."

Fauci continued to insist as recently as November that it is "much more likely" that COVID-19 originated in nature rather than from the Wuhan lab.

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