Thursday, October 14, 2021
On January 31, 2020, an infectious-disease expert at the Scripps Research Translational Institute named Kristian Anderson called Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to relay some alarming news. Anderson and his colleagues had been investigating the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and thought it showed signs of having been manipulated in a laboratory. In a later email to Fauci, he wrote, “Some of the features (potentially) look engineered.”
Fauci immediately arranged a conference call for the next day. It included not just Fauci and Anderson, but Fauci’s boss, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, as well as experts in Britain and elsewhere. “It was a very productive back-and-forth conversation where some on the call felt it could possibly be an engineered virus,” Fauci later told USA Today writer Alison Young. It was scary enough if a naturally occurring virus had jumped from animals to humans (as most viral pathogens do). The notion that it might instead be a lab experiment gone awry was deeply ominous.
Three days later, everything had changed. In a February 4 email to a group of scientists advising the White House, Andersen wrote that “the data conclusively show” that the virus had not been manipulated. In fact, he called that idea one of the “main crackpot theories going around at the moment.” Almost overnight, top figures in virology research and in the public-health establishment went from being worried the virus might be man-made to dismissing that possibility as a “conspiracy theory.”
What were the data that so persuasively convinced Andersen, Fauci, and other experts in that February 1 meeting? We don’t know. In fact, we know about Andersen’s emails at all only because they were released under the Freedom of Information Act. News organizations, including Buzzfeed and the Intercept, along with good-government groups, have requested thousands of pages of documents related to the pandemic. Much of what little we know about our government’s handling of the lab-leak question comes from these documents.Listen and Subscribe to the Commentary Podcast