Journalists and scientists routinely dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a crackpot theory and even as "racist," up until the summer of 2021 when science journalist Nicholas Wade published an influential article, and a viral rant by Jon Stewart pushed it into the mainstream. Until that point, social media platforms had been removing or throttling posts that took it seriously. Anthony Fauci, who didn't respond to our interview request, said it wasn't worth even considering the possibility that COVID could have originated in a lab.
More recently, emails made public through the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that Fauci, National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins, and other prominent public officials took the possibility of a lab origin far more seriously than they were letting on.
"Top virologists, sort of giants in this field, were looking at the genome and freaking out, basically," says health reporter Emily Kopp, who works at the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know, an organization that has obtained thousands of pages of official documents and correspondence, some of which reveal an orchestrated effort by scientists to downplay the lab leak theory. It's also extensively analyzed emails obtained via a lawsuit by Buzzfeed's Jason Leopold that reveal the huge disconnect between what health officials were telling the public and what they were saying in private.
"A really central part of this entire story that maybe is not talked about enough is the fact that so many mainstream publications have completely overlooked really key pieces of evidence in this story," says Kopp. "We see a lot of health editors and health reporters prioritizing a tidy narrative about Anthony Fauci over providing the truth to their readers."
U.S. Right to Know is devoting significant resources to its "COVID-19 Origins" research with the mission of "investigating the origins of Covid-19, the risks of gain-of-function research and mishaps at Biolabs where pathogens of pandemic potentials are stored and manipulated."
Kopp has assembled a comprehensive timeline that lays out substantial evidence that Fauci, Collins, and a number of influential scientists misled the public. Whether or not the lab leak theory is correct, it's now clear that these public officials concealed their conflicts of interest with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and minimized their own roles in providing government funding for unsupervised gain-of-function research that may have led to the pandemic.
Among other things, Kopp's research has revealed that virologist Kristian Andersen, who didn't answer our interview request, wrote privately to Fauci that he and three other scientists thought that the virus that causes COVID-19 looked unnatural and "inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory." Just four days later, after participating in a series of teleconferences with Fauci and Collins, Andersen called the lab leak theory "crackpot."
Other emails revealed that Fauci knew that his agency was funding gain-of-function research with SARS-like coronaviruses in Wuhan by late January 2020, yet he publicly denied it before Congress 18 months later, claiming that the research didn't meet the U.S. government's technical definition of research that aims "to increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility."
In an October 2021 letter to Congress, NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak admitted that the NIH had funded a grant to an NGO called EcoHealth Alliance that was working with scientists in Wuhan. These experiments resulted in mice becoming sicker when infected with a lab-manipulated coronavirus that had a known ability to bind to human receptors. EcoHealth Alliance has claimed that because this result was "unexpected," it wasn't gain-of-function research. But the organization didn't cease experimentation after achieving these results. The NIH sent EcoHealth Alliance compliance letters two years after receiving the data about the enhanced virus, but NIH leadership didn't pull the funding.
"For some reason, NIH carved out this exception to its own gain-of-function regulations for EcoHealth Alliance," says Kopp. "There are also real questions about whether EcoHealth Alliance has published all of the data it has access to, which is, I think really scandalous because EcoHealth Alliance…accepts our public tax dollars."
Emails between U.S. scientists and those working in the Wuhan lab confirm that many viral sequences from that lab remained unpublished as of 2021.
The question of COVID-19's origins still remains an open one. In February of 2022, The New York Times published an article citing new research claiming "dispositive evidence" for the theory that the virus originated at the Wuhan market. But after peer review, those findings are far less conclusive
One of the studies cited by the Times identified raccoon dogs as the likely animal host. But raccoon dogs were sold in relatively small quantities at the Wuhan market, there's no evidence they are particularly susceptible to the early strain of the virus, and there are "no natural infections of a raccoon dog documented by any strain of SARS-CoV-2 anywhere in the world," according to one critique by another team of scientists. In the published version of the pro-market-spread article, the authors abandoned the claim of "dispositive" evidence for a Wuhan market origin, substituting a weaker claim that animals at the market were a "clear conduit" for the virus, though they concede that there's no direct evidence of a market animal infected with it.
In contrast, there was strong evidence that the 2002 SARS outbreak was transmitted to humans by animals.
More recently, a pre-print study published by three biologists claims to have discovered a genetic "fingerprint" indicating "strong evidence of synthetic origin of SARS-CoV-2." Kristian Andersen, a member of Fauci's inner circle in the early days of the pandemic, dismissed that paper as "bullshit" that fails "kindergarten molecular biology."
A Senate committee report released by Republicans last week concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic "was most likely the result of a research-related incident" citing "gaps" like the failure to identify an "intermediate host species," the lack of evidence showing transmission from animals to humans and unanswered questions about the virus' "unique genetic features, such as its furin cleavage site." A Pro Publica/Vanity Fair investigation drawing on materials from that report uncovered internal communications that seem to indicate Chinese state officials went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to investigate "an acute safety emergency in November 2019."
Research that results in new types of coronaviruses continues in labs both in the U.S. and abroad, with a recent experiment out of Boston University resulting in a virus that combines the deadly ancestral strain of SARS-CoV-2 with the transmissible and immune-evasive omicron variant. Some scientists have defended the research because the original strain killed 100 percent of mice infected in the lab while the lab-generated virus killed only 80 percent of infected mice. However, the omicron variant killed no infected mice and is known to be better at evading vaccine-induced immunity in humans, so it's unclear what effect this chimeric virus would have on a human population were it to escape the lab.
In September, the NIH awarded a new grant for studying bat-borne coronaviruses to EcoHealth Alliance.
"It seems to me like the status quo is more or less continuing unabated," says Kopp. "I don't think that experiments are actually slowing, and I think they might actually be accelerating."
Watch the full video interview above.
UPDATE: A paragraph in this story has been revised since publication to add additional context about the coronavirus experiments at Boston University.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Edited by Regan Taylor. Graphics by Taylor. Sound editing by Ian Keyser.
Photo Credits: Sam Tsang/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Stephen Shaver/Polaris/Newscom; Reynolds Michael/Pool/ABACA/Newscom; Rod Lamkey—CNP/CNP / Polaris/Newscom; Stefani Reynolds—Pool via CNP / MEGA / Newscom; Ureem2805, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom.
Music Credit: "Ganymede," by Yehezkel Raz via Artlist.