Kristian Andersen, Scientist Fauci Emailed, Defends Article Debunking Lab Leak Hypothesis

Virologist Kristian Andersen has said an email conversation he had with Dr. Anthony Fauci in January 2020, discussing the possibility that COVID-19 was engineered, "is a clear example of the scientific process."

Andersen runs a lab at the Scripps Research Institute that studies the genes of viruses to understand what causes outbreaks. On March 17, 2020, he and colleagues published a paper in the journal Nature Medicine that concluded COVID was not made in a laboratory or "purposefully manipulated."

Correspondence between him and Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, earlier in 2020 is among 3,200 pages of Fauci's emails that have been obtained and published by BuzzFeed News following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The Washington Post obtained a further 800 emails, also through the Freedom of Information Act.

The release of the emails comes amid renewed speculation that COVID originated in a lab in China, with President Joe Biden ordering an investigation last week to explore this hypothesis and others.

In an email dated January 31, 2020, Fauci sends Andersen and Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. health research charitable foundation, the text of an article outlining hypotheses surrounding the possible origins of COVID, which was published in the online version of the journal Science.

The article, headlined "Mining coronavirus genomes for clues to the outbreaks' origins," describes how genetic sequencing of the virus shows it is closely related to a virus found in bats, how it may have jumped from an animal to humans, the role potentially played by the Wuhan market that many early cases were linked to, and the controversial hypothesis that COVID-19 may have come from a Chinese lab.

In the email, Fauci writes: "This just came out today. You may have seen it. If not, it is of interest to the current discussion."

Andersen replies that he and colleague Edward Holmes, a University of Sydney evolutionary biologist, are quoted in what he describes as a "great article." Andersen adds that his team's analysis of the virus' phylogenetic tree—akin to a family tree—suggests that it did indeed originate in bats.

He goes on to say "the unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.

"We have a good team lined up to look very critically at this, so we should know much more by the end of the weekend."

He adds that after discussions with colleagues, they "all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory. But we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change."

This email was followed by the March 17 publication in Nature Medicine.

Following the publication of the Fauci emails, Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado Boulder, asked Andersen on Twitter to explain what "all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory" means in layman's terms.

Andersen replied: "it specifically means we thought—on preliminary look—that the virus could have been engineered and/or manipulated. Turns out the data suggest otherwise—which is the conclusion of our paper."

In a separate tweet Andersen wrote: "As I have said many times, we seriously considered a lab leak a possibility. However, significant new data, extensive analyses and many discussions led to the conclusions in our paper.

"What the email shows is a clear example of the scientific process."

A key tenet of science is evaluating one's beliefs based on the latest empirical evidence. This explains, for instance, why messaging around masking changed during the pandemic.

In a separate tweet, Andersen wrote: "Conspiracies have created a narrative where we all 'dismissed it [the lab leak hypothesis] out of hand'."

"That's absurd and couldn't be further from the truth. It's just that the data don't support the hypothesis."

Last week, Andersen and colleagues defended the Nature Medicine paper in comments to Newsweek.

Andersen told Newsweek the lab leak idea was "based purely on speculation" and he had not see any "credible evidence" to back it.

He said: "All statements in our article were supported by evidence available at the time, and they have only since been further strengthened by additional evidence, of which there is a great deal."

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Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a Senate hearing on May 11 at the U.S. Capitol. Thousands of his emails from the early months of the pandemic have been released under the Freedom of Information Act. GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images