House Republicans on the subcommittee probing the origin of the Covid-19 virus appear to have inadvertently released a trove of new documents related to their investigation that shed light on deliberations among the scientists who drafted a key paper in February and March of 2020. The paper, published in Nature Medicine on March 17, 2020, was titled “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” and played a leading role in creating a public impression of a scientific consensus that the virus had emerged naturally in a Chinese “wet market.”
The paper was the subject of a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, which coincided with the release of a report by the subcommittee devoted to the “Proximal Origin” paper. It contains limited screenshots of emails and Slack messages among the authors, laying out its case that the scientists believed one thing in private — that lab escape was likely — while working to produce a paper saying the opposite in public.
The newly exposed documents include full emails and pages of Slack chats that were cropped for the report, exposing the “Proximal Origin” authors’ real-time thinking. According to the metadata in the PDF of the report, it was created using “Acrobat PDFMaker 23 for Word,” indicating that the report was originally drafted as a Word document. Word, however, retains the original image when an image is cropped, as do many other apps. Microsoft’s documentation cautions that “Cropped parts of the picture are not removed from the file, and can potentially be seen by others,” going on to note: “If there is sensitive information in the area you’re cropping out make sure you delete the cropped areas.”
When this Word document was converted to a PDF, the original, uncropped images were likewise carried over. The Intercept was able to extract the original, complete images from the PDF using freely available tools, following the work of a Twitter sleuth.
All the files can be found here. A spokesperson for committee Republicans declined to comment.
Much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on a critical few days in early February 2020, beginning with a conference call February 1 that included the eventual authors of the paper and Drs. Anthony Fauci, then head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Francis Collins, then head of its parent agency, the National Institutes of Health. Later minutes showed that the consensus among the experts leaned toward a lab escape. Yet within days, they were circulating a draft — including to Fauci and Collins — that came to the opposite conclusion, the first draft of which had been finished the same day of the conference call. How and why that rapid turnaround occurred has been the subject of much debate and interrogation.
The authors have said, and repeated during Tuesday’s hearing, that new data had changed their minds, but the new Slack messages and emails show that their initial inclination toward a lab escape remained long past that time.
Among the scientists testifying Tuesday was lead paper author Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research. In a Slack exchange on February 2, 2020, between Andersen and Andrew Rambaut of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology in the School of Biological Sciences, it becomes clear how seriously the authors took the hypothesis that Covid may have leaked from a lab, rather than emerged through natural means, before they ultimately became dedicated to publicly dismissing it.
“I believe RaTG13 is from Yuanan, which is about as far away from Wuhan as you can be and still be in China,” Andersen wrote, referring to a virus that produced Covid-like symptoms in miners in 2013, a strain that was later stored and researched at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “What are the chances of finding a viruses that are 96% identical given that distance? Seems strange given how many SARS-like viruses we have in bats.”
Rambaut responded on Slack suggesting they back off such interrogation. “I personally think we should get away from all the strange coincidence stuff. I agree it smells really fishy but without a smoking gun it will not do us any good,” he wrote. “The truth is never going to come out (if [lab] escape is the truth). Would need irrefutable evidence. My position is that the natural evolution is entirely plausible and we will have to leave it at that. Lab passaging might also generate this mutation but we have no evidence that that happened.”
Still, said Rambaut, even though the truth would never emerge if a lab was responsible, the researchers had a responsibility, privately at least, to see what lessons could be learned to prevent a future lab escape. “I think it would be good idea to lay out these arguments for limited dissemination. And quite frankly so we can learn from it even if it wasn’t an escape,” he added.
That same day, after having put together the first draft of the paper, Andersen responded to two colleagues who wanted to conclusively rule out the lab scenario: “The main issue is that accidental escape is in fact highly likely–it’s not some fringe theory.”
But the paper they were drafting argued the opposite and would be used to label the possibility of a lab leak as a fringe conspiracy, confidently asserting, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Andersen said repeatedly that Fauci and Collins had no role in influencing the paper. But Fauci’s shadow hangs over the conversation. “The idea of engineering and bioweapon is definitely not going away and I’m still getting pinged by journalists,” Andersen wrote on February 5, 2020. “I have noticed some of them starting to ask more broadly about ‘lab escape’ and for now I have just ignored them — there might be a time where we need to tackle that more directly head on, but I’ll let the likes of Jeremy [Farrar] and Tony [Fauci] figure out how to do that.”
Farrar, a British biomedical researcher, was not listed as an author on the paper but was frequently referred to by Democrats during the hearing as the “father” of it. In the messages, he is seen sharing drafts of the paper with Fauci and Collins and asking the authors for edits, at one point in mid-February asking that a lab scenario be downgraded in their paper from “unlikely” to “improbable” — a change that Andersen, the lead author, agreed to.
An email in the cache from Eddie Holmes, another one of the authors, alludes to “pressure from on high.” In reply to an email that isn’t included in the subcommittee’s report or the documents, Holmes writes, “Anyway, it’s done. Sorry the last bit had to be done without you…pressure from on high.” In previous exchanges, officials with the communications department at the NIH had been asking about the status of the submission. Taken as a whole, the messages undercut the claims that the NIH took a hands-off approach to the paper.
The new documents also include a message from Nature — where the authors pitched the “Proximal Origin” paper before sending to Nature Medicine — explaining its rejection. Despite the paper leaning heavily toward a natural emergence and downplaying the potential of a lab leak, one Nature reviewer found that even leaving open the possibility of a lab escape would fuel conspiracy theorists, a Nature editor wrote to the authors. “Once the authors publish their new pangolin sequences, a lab origin will be extremely unlikely,” the reviewer had written.
Andersen pushed back against the rejection, assuring the Nature editor that their project had started with the goal of beating back “conspiracy” theories, but that the data and evidence made it impossible. “Had that been the case, we would of course have included that — but the more sequences we see from pangolins (and we have been analyzing/discussing these very carefully) the more unlikely it seems that they’re the intermediate hosts,” Andersen responded in an email on February 20, 2020. “Unfortunately none of this helps refute a lab origin and the possibility must be considered as a serious scientific theory (which is what we do) and not dismissed out of hand as another ‘conspiracy’ theory. We all really, really wish that we could do that (that’s how this got started), but unfortunately it’s not possible given the data.”
The group edited their paper further to more strongly dismiss the possibility of a lab leak for its later submission to Nature Medicine. The journal’s publication of the paper just a month later effectively ended debate for a year or more as to the origin of the pandemic.