Leading British and US scientists thought it was likely that Covid accidentally leaked from a laboratory but were concerned that further debate would harm science in China, emails show.
An email from Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, on February 2 2020 said that “a likely explanation” was that Covid had rapidly evolved from a Sars-like virus inside human tissue in a low-security lab.
The email, to Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Francis Collins of the US National Institutes of Health, went on to say that such evolution may have “accidentally created a virus primed for rapid transmission between humans”.
But a leading scientist told Sir Jeremy 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 it could damage “international harmony”.
Viscount Ridley, co-author of Viral: the search for the origin of Covid, said: “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.”
In the emails, Sir Jeremy said that other scientists also believed the virus could not have evolved naturally. One such scientist was Professor Mike Farzan, of Scripps Research, the expert who discovered how the original Sars virus binds to human cells.
Scientists were particularly concerned by 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.
Summarising Professor Farzan’s concerns in an email, Sir Jeremy said: “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.
“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.”