Jeremy Farrar is a former professor at Oxford University and the head of the Wellcome Trust, an extremely influential non-government funder of medical research in the UK and a big investor in vaccine companies.
Some people regard Farrar as the UK’s Anthony Fauci. He had much to do with the pandemic response, including the lockdowns and mandates in the UK. For the entire pandemic ordeal, he has been in touch with his colleagues around the world. He has written a book (it appeared July 2021 but was probably written in the Spring) on his experience with the pandemic.
In general, the book is chaotic, strongly backing lockdowns without ever presenting a clear rationale for why, much less a road map for how to get out of lockdowns. I swear you could read this book carefully front to back and not know anything more about pandemics and their course than you had at the beginning. In this sense, the book is an abysmal failure, which probably explains why it is so little talked about.
That said, the book is revealing in other ways, some of which I did not cover in my review. He carefully presents the scene at the beginning of the pandemic, including the great fear that he, Fauci, and others had that the virus was not of natural origin. It might have been created in a lab and leaked, accidentally or deliberately. This awesome prospect is behind some of the strangest sentences in the book, which I quote here:
By the second week of January, I was beginning to realise the scale of what was happening. I was also getting the uncomfortable feeling that some of the information needed by scientists all around the world to detect and fight this new disease was not being disclosed as fast as it could be. I did not know it then, but a fraught few weeks lay ahead.
In those weeks, I became exhausted and scared. I felt as if I was living a different person’s life. During that period, I would do things I had never done before: acquire a burner phone, hold clandestine meetings, keep difficult secrets. I would have surreal conversations with my wife, Christiane, who persuaded me we should let the people closest to us know what was going on. I phoned my brother and best friend to give them my temporary number. In hushed conversations, I sketched out the possibility of a looming global health crisis that had the potential to be read as bioterrorism.
‘If anything happens to me in the next few weeks,’ I told them nervously, ‘this is what you need to know.’
Sounds like a thriller movie! A burner phone? Clandestine meetings? What the heck is going on here? If there really was a virus on the loose and a looming crisis of public health, why would your first impulse be, as a famous guy and so on, to write about it, tell the public everything you know, inform every public health official, open up and prepare people, and get to work finding therapeutics that can save lives? Why would you not immediately investigate the demographics of risk and inform people and institutions of the best-possible response?
What the heck is all this cloak-and-dagger about? Seems like a bad start for a responsible public policy.
The next chapter reveals some of the background to all this high dudgeon:
In the last week of January 2020, I saw email chatter from scientists in the US suggesting the virus looked almost engineered to infect human cells. These were credible scientists proposing an incredible, and terrifying, possibility of either an accidental leak from a laboratory or a deliberate release….
It seemed a huge coincidence for a coronavirus to crop up in Wuhan, a city with a superlab. Could the novel corona-virus be anything to do with ‘gain of function’ (GOF) studies? These are studies in which viruses are deliberately genetically engineered to become more contagious and then used to infect mammals like ferrets, to track how the modified virus spreads. They are carried out in top-grade containment labs like the one in Wuhan. Viruses that infect ferrets can also infect humans, precisely the reason ferrets are a good model for studying human infection in the first place. But GOF studies always carry a tiny risk of something going wrong: the virus leaking out of the lab, or a virus infecting a lab researcher who then goes home and spreads it….
The novel coronavirus might not even be that novel at all. It might have been engineered years ago, put in a freezer, and then taken out more recently by someone who decided to work on it again. And then, maybe, there was … an accident? Labs can function for decades and often store samples for just as long. In 2014, six old vials of freeze-dried variola virus, which causes smallpox, were uncovered in a lab in Maryland, US; though the samples dated back to the 1950s, they still tested positive for variola DNA. Some viruses and microbes are disturbingly resilient. It sounded crazy but once you get into a mindset it becomes easy to connect things that are unrelated. You begin to see a pattern that is only there because of your own starting bias. And my starting bias was that it was odd for a spillover event, from animals to humans, to take off in people so immediately and spectacularly – in a city with a biolab. One standout molecular feature of the virus was a region in the genome sequence called a furin cleavage site, which enhances infectivity. This novel virus, spreading like wildfire, seemed almost designed to infect human cells….
The idea that an unnatural, highly contagious pathogen could have been unleashed, either by accident or design, catapulted me into a world that I had barely navigated before. This issue needed urgent attention from scientists – but it was also the territory of the security and intelligence services….
When I told Eliza about the suspicions over the origins of the new coronavirus, she advised that everyone involved in the delicate conversations should raise our guard, security-wise. We should use different phones; avoid putting things in emails; and ditch our normal email addresses and phone contacts.
Keep in mind, we are talking here about the last week of January. The top experts in the world were living in fear that this was actually a lab leak and perhaps a deliberate one. This consumed them completely, knowing full well that if this were true, we could see something close to a world war developing. And then the question comes up concerning responsibility.
Let’s move to the next chapter:
The next day, I contacted Tony Fauci about the rumours over the origins of the virus and asked him to speak with Kristian Andersen at Scripps. We agreed that a bunch of specialists needed to urgently look into it. We needed to know if this virus came from nature or was a product of deliberate nurture, followed by either accidental or intentional release from the BSL-4 lab based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Depending on what the experts thought, Tony added, the FBI and MI5 would need to be told. I remember becoming a little nervous about my own personal safety around this time. I don’t really know what I was scared of. But extreme stress is not conducive to thinking rationally or behaving logically. I was exhausted from living in two parallel universes – my day-to-day life at Wellcome in London, and then going back home to Oxford and having these clandestine conversations at night with people on opposite sides of the world.
Eddie in Sydney would be working when Kristian in California was asleep, and vice versa. I didn’t just feel as if I was working a 24-hour day – I really was. On top of that, we were getting phonecalls through the night from all over the world. Christiane was loosely keeping a diary and recorded 17 calls in one night. It’s hard to come off nocturnal calls about the possibility of a lab leak and go back to bed.
I’d never had trouble sleeping before, something that comes from spending a career working as a doctor in critical care and medicine. But the situation with this new virus and the dark question marks over its origins felt emotionally overwhelming. None of us knew what was going to happen but things had already escalated into an international emergency. On top of that, just a few of us – Eddie, Kristian, Tony and I – were now privy to sensitive information that, if proved to be true, might set off a whole series of events that would be far bigger than any of us. It felt as if a storm was gathering, of forces beyond anything I had experienced and over which none of us had any control.
Well, there we go. Was there ever a doubt that Fauci and so on were consumed by fear that this was a lab leak from their own colleagues and friends in Wuhan? Has he denied this? I’m not sure but this account from Farrar is pretty extraordinary proof that discovering the virus’s origins was the major concern from these official and influential scientists for the last part of January through February. Rather than thinking about things such as “How can we help doctors deal with patients?” and “Who is vulnerable to this virus and what should we say about that?”, they were consumed by discovering the origin of the virus and hiding from the public what they were doing.
Again, I am not interpreting things here. I’m only quoting what Farrar says in his own book. He reports that the experts he consulted were 80% sure it had come from a lab. They all scheduled an online meeting for February 1, 2020.
Patrick Vallance informed the intelligence agencies of the suspicions; Eddie did the same in Australia. Tony Fauci copied in Francis Collins, who heads the US National Institutes of Health (the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, which Tony heads, is part of the NIH). Tony and Francis understood the extreme sensitivity of what was being suggested,…
The next day I gathered everyone’s thoughts, including people like Michael Farzan, and emailed Tony and Francis: “On a spectrum if 0 is nature and 100 is release – I am honestly at 50! My guess is that this will remain grey, unless there is access to the Wuhan lab – and I suspect that is unlikely!”
These discussions and investigations continue for the whole month of February. This explains so much about why health officials in so many countries were entering into panic mode rather than calmly addressing an emerging problem in public health. They spent all their energies on discerning the origin of the virus. Were they worried that they would be implicated due to financial ties? I don’t really know and Farrar doesn’t go into that.
Regardless, it took them a full month before this small group finally came out with what appeared to be a definitive paper appearing in Nature: The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. The date it appeared was March 17, 2020. That was the day following the announcement of lockdowns in the US. We now know that the paper was written as early as February 4, and went through many drafts over the coming weeks, including edits by Anthony Fauci himself. That paper has since been debated very extensively. It was hardly the last word.
What strikes me most in retrospect concerning the idea of the lab leak is the following. During the most critical weeks leading up to the obvious spread of the virus all over the Northeast of the U.S., leading to incredible carnage in nursing homes due to egregious policies that failed to protect the vulnerable and even deliberately infected them, public health officials in the US and UK were consumed not with a proper health response but with fear of dealing with the probability that this virus was man-made in China.
They deliberated in secret. They used burner phones. They spoke only to their trusted colleagues. This went on for more than a month from late January 2020 to early March. Whether this virus originated as a lab leak or not in this case is not so much the issue; there is no question that Farrar, Collins, Fauci, and company all believed that it was likely and even probable, and they spent their time and energies plotting the spin. This fear consumed them entirely at the very moment when their job was to be thinking of the best public-health response.
Maybe their time should have been about telling the truth as they knew it? Explaining how to deal rationally with the coming virus? Helping people who are vulnerable protect themselves while explaining to everyone else that there is no point in panicking?
Instead, in the midst of the panic they both felt and then projected to the public, they urged and got lockdowns of the world’s economy, a policy response never before attempted on this scale in response to a virus.
The virus did what the virus does, and all we are left with are the breathtaking results of the pandemic response: economic carnage, cultural destruction, large amounts of unnecessary death, and an incredible paper trail of incompetence, fear, secrecy, plotting, and neglect of genuine health concerns.
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