If there’s any scandal revealed by the emails of Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently released after a Freedom of Information Act request by journalists, it’s that scientists were wildly clueless at the start of the pandemic. They didn’t know what to do about the pandemic, when and how to deploy masks, or where the pandemic came from.
Both conservative and liberal-leaning pundits have spun the email release to different ends — either revealing Fauci hid critical information from the world or that he was a nice guy who worked really hard and still had time to answer his email.
Those saying Fauci “knew from the beginning” of the pandemic’s possible origin in a lab in Wuhan, China — a claim that has been neither proven nor disproven — cite one particular email from Scripps Research biologist Kristian Andersen, who wrote to Fauci back in January 2020 that the genetic information in the virus looks “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” and that “one has to look really closely at all of the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.”
What we’re looking at is not a scientific conclusion but a single expert’s preliminary opinion. It would be irresponsible to throw around accusations based on this one email. Moreover, Andersen subsequently argued in a scientific paper published in Nature in March 2020 the genomic sequences point to a natural origin. Neither his initial email or his subsequent paper should be taken as the last word.
Even now, the jury is still out about the pandemic’s origin and whether the genome of the virus holds an answer. I talked this over last week with virologist David Sanders of Purdue University — a researcher I’d interviewed before the pandemic about virology but also about his work on evolution.
I asked him about suggestions of artificial manipulation that showed up in a Medium article by researcher Yuri Deigin and later presented in a more compact form by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, also on Medium. One of the main arguments is that there’s a distinguishing feature that separated SARS-CoV-2 from its closest cousins. It’s something called a furin cleavage site, which allows the virus to hijack a protein in our cells, called furin, to activate itself. Other viruses have found other ways to do the same thing.
Sanders walked me through the argument and told me he still thinks these features could have come from evolution. Sometimes products of evolution can look unlikely. As creationists have often argued, what are the odds that evolution can produce a miracle like the eye? Yet scientific consensus holds it indeed happened.
In the same way, said Sanders, evolution could very well land on one of the few combinations of genes that would make a coronavirus that was extremely transmissible between humans. It also may have produced many that weren’t, and they didn’t start pandemics.
At the same time, there’s increasing attention on the fact no plausible scenario has been found for a natural origin of the disease either. The virus looks similar to coronaviruses from horseshoe bats, and these bats don’t live in Wuhan. However, collections of such viruses had been stored at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The virus could conceivably have been artificially altered in virology experiments going on there — or it could be a naturally occurring virus that had been collected and stored at the facility.
We still don’t know. What the emails show is that Fauci has been learning along with the rest of us.
If Fauci owes the public an explanation for anything, it’s why he approved funding for research that potentially made viruses more dangerous — so-called gain of function research.
Though Fauci has been unofficially anointed America’s “top expert in infectious disease” by the press, his real job is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In that capacity, he’s not above criticism. He’s approved funding of projects on viruses that other scientists have deemed too risky to be worth doing.
Though the lab leak theory has been embraced more on the political right, Ebright says it was Republican hawks under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who pushed for the NIH to fund more of the sort of research that could have both health and bioweapons applications — or could be seen as defensive against biological attack. And it was academics on the left who warned this work could endanger our safety in the name of improving it.
Some researchers justified these projects as a way to stay ahead of the enemy — whether that was an enemy government or the natural world. Even if this pandemic coronavirus didn’t come from that kind of research, those efforts haven’t done much to help us here. As those emails show, we were always many steps behind it.