Who Engineered the Virus?
The leak location is important; the biotech origin even more so.
On Wednesday morning, Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the CDC, testified before the House Select Sub-committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. The topic was the origin of the SARS2 virus, and Redfield did not pull his punches.
Now that more institutions, such as the Department of Energy and FBI, are acknowledging the likely non-natural origin of SARS2, many are focusing on The Lab – the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in the Hubei Province of China. And rightly so. It’s the most likely point of escape. Always was. It should have been a focus from the beginning.
Redfield, however, did not let the United States off the hook. The U.S., after all, is the likely origin of the technology and roadmap that made SARS2 possible. Yes, Dr. Tony Fauci’s National Institutes of Health funded advanced virus experiments known as Gain of Function Research of Concern (GOFROC). But, Redfield reminded us, so did the State Department, Pentagon, and USAID, which over the last decade provided hundreds of millions of dollars to virus research outfits such as EcoHealth Alliance and Ralph Baric’s lab at the University of North Carolina, who were explicitly collaborating with WIV. Records suggest USAID handed out far more money than NIH.
Also testifying was Dr. Jamie Metzl, a former National Security Council member and China expert, who has pointed to WIV from the beginning. He and colleagues were slandered as “conspiracy theorists.” They wrote early papers demanding full investigations, but scientific journals wouldn’t publish them.
China’s stonewalling was perhaps unsurprising. The clampdown on information by Western scientists, on the other hand, was shocking, at the time.
Now we know why they censored and smoke-screened. Western virologists didn’t want us talking about WIV, Western-WIV links, nor their own GOFROC experiments.
In early 2020, Fauci orchestrated a cover-up. He “prompted” the writing of two documents – a Lancet letter denigrating any inquiries as “conspiracy theories” and the Nature Medicine ”Proximal Origins” paper confidently asserting a natural, or zoonotic, origin. A compliant media followed these supposedly authoritative statements with a barrage of bullying. For a year, the virologists were mostly successful in throwing officials off the scent of dangerous viral research and focusing all attention on a feral leap.1
Then, however, FOIA’d emails showed up, demonstrating the virologists privately believed from the beginning the virus may have been “engineered.” They only changed their stories after coordination with Fauci and the UK’s Jeremy Farrar, then head of the giant Wellcome Trust, now chief scientist at the World Health Organization. So, in famous showdowns with Sen. Rand Paul, Fauci tried to muddy the waters with semantic balderdash. His lawyerly misdirection went something like this: I resent your suggestion that I personally funded newly-narrowly-defined gain-of-function research at WIV, which led directly to SARS2, which killed millions of people.
Fauci’s virological entourage – Kristian Andersen, Michael Worobey, Bob Garry, Ed Holmes, etc. – is still blowing smoke three years later. In 2022, they used geotag data provided by the Chinese government to claim “dispositive” proof SARS2 first jumped to humans from animals in the Wuhan wet market. To get around the inconvenient fact that two different strains had been collected in the market, they fancifully argued that two strains of SARS2 jumped from two different animals to two humans within days in late November or December 2019. The New York Times dutifully reported the case was closed.
Given all we’ve learned, the newer papers from 2022 claiming a zoonotic origin are worse than unpersuasive. Worobey and Anderson’s total failure to grapple with the best arguments for unnatural origin is a sure sign of obfuscation. Specimens showing humans had already been infected in September and October are just the simplest evidence that the improbable double-cross-over event in the market in late November or December could not have been the crucial patient(s)-zero moment.
This evidence points away from the market and elevates the probability of a lab leak. And yet, even a natural virus collected in a bat cave could escape from a lab. More fundamental molecular analysis of SARS2’s genetic code and epidemiological analysis of its behavior upon human introduction is therefore required. It helps us answer an even more crucial question: is the virus natural or engineered?
The molecular and biological facts are far more compelling than geotagged data provided by the Chinese government. They are direct evidence, not circumstantial.
At least four point toward an engineered virus – just as Fauci’s entourage first believed.
Unlike any sarbecovirus ever known, SARS2 has a furin cleavage site (FCS), which supercharges its human infectivity.
The SARS2 furin site contains an unusual human-optimized CGG-CGG codon couplet rarely seen in bats.
SARS2 appears to be cut into regularly sized and spaced pieces, and stitched together, as we might expect in an engineered infectious clone.
SARS2 entered the human population “ready to go at full speed.” From the outset, unlike SARS1 or MERS, it appeared pre-optimized for extreme human infectivity.
Each of these crucial facts is consistent with another central piece of evidence – the 2018 DEFUSE proposal, which outlined EcoHealth’s strategy to create and study human-optimized SARS-like viruses with furin insertions. And that it would do so in Wuhan.
Points 1, 2, and 4 above have been discussed in depth for two and a half years. Point 3 is newer and potentially answers the question of how SARS2 was created.
In an October 2022 pre-print, Valentin Bruttel, Alex Washburne, and Antonius VanDongen describe a molecular fingerprint suggesting a synthetic origin. They show that SARS2 appears to be stitched together just like other known experimental synthetic viruses.
Scientists use a technique known as in vitro genome assembly (IVGA) to create infectious clones. The technology cuts the virus genome into regular pieces, which can then be removed, replaced, and altered to explore new characteristics. These cutting sites – called restriction sites because of the restriction enzymes used to cut – offer a convenient map for plug-and-play genomics. Natural viruses also have restriction sites; but they do not have such regularly sized or spaced chunks of code.
Washburne and colleagues showed that previous plug-and-play experimentation with SARS-like clones all cut the virus into between five and eight fragments. The fragment lengths were similar, too, with no extremely long fragments. They predicted that SARS2 would fit into the red box of known synthetic viruses below, and bingo; it did. The trio also found SARS2 has a significantly higher portion of synonymous mutations in these restriction sites than its natural cousins.
You should read Washburne’s lay explanation of their molecular fingerprint paper; his Twitter thread estimating the extraordinarily long odds (very roughly, one in 56 billion) of SARS2 naturally exhibiting all of these oddities, including the FCS and CGG-CGG couplet; and his broader summary case pointing to a synthetic origin.
The China Question
In his March 8 testimony, Jamie Metzl emphasized we should focus on China, not Dr. Fauci. He followed up with a tweet making the same case.
China’s failures to alert the world to SARS2 and to investigate it promptly, thoroughly, and cooperatively are unacceptable. And no, we should “not make this primarily” about Dr. Fauci.
This emphasis on China, however, if taken too far, could be used to let numerous Western culprits off the hook and prevent essential accountability and reform.
Fauci, EcoHealth’s Peter Daszak, and their friends actively blocked real investigation and deployed knowing falsehoods to confuse the world. They maligned the reputations of far more upright citizen scientists and public officials. Jeffrey Sachs’ account of his experience with the diabolical Daszak while leading the Lancet pandemic commission is jaw dropping.
Whether Fauci, Daszak, and the rest wanted to cover up their own complicity in the dangerous experiments, or whether they merely feared a clampdown on future virological research, or both, their actions before and after SARS2 leave a more parlous world.
Obviously, if China leaked SARS2 on purpose (which I doubt), then we’re talking about a much higher level of alarm and response. But Western scientists’ own duplicity has made finding the truth and getting accountability – for any and all responsible parties – far more difficult.
The ability of the U.S. to improve its own policies and personnel is far higher than its ability to change China. In fact, U.S. strength is the most important factor in its China policy. Economic growth, technological innovation, and a healthy pluralism at home are they keys to shaping the world abroad.
Anti-China sentiment is rapidly engulfing Washington, D.C. Much of the concern is warranted. If, however, an overwrought focus on foreign enemies deflects from acknowledgement of U.S. shortcomings, then crucial domestic reforms won’t happen. America’s actual abilities to gather friends and to prod, deter, counter, and, if necessary, fight China will erode even further.
Free speech, open science, equality under law, economic dynamism – these are, or were, America’s strengths. They must be again.
Holding China accountable will be difficult if we don’t improve our accountability mechanisms at home.
On January 31, 2020, some of the world’s top virologists told Dr. Anthony Fauci they believed the SARS-CoV-2 virus was probably “engineered” and they “can’t think of a plausible natural scenario.” On February 1, many of these same virologists held a teleconference with Fauci. Within weeks, these same scientists insisted in the Lancet and Nature Medicine that the virus was natural and to question its origin was spreading “misinformation” and “prejudice.” The Washington Post and New York Times, citing these virologists, called Sen. Tom Cotton and others who raised the possibility of a lab leak “conspiracy theorists.” Our ability to discern the provenance of SARS2 was thus delayed for at least a year, and maybe forever. We later learned Fauci’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) granted these scientists $50 million in 2020 and 2021 alone.