How strange it is, that Chinese researchers began promoting pangolins as a SARS-2 reservoir exactly as Western virologists were composing their ecumenical endorsement of natural origins for Nature
Some distant history to refresh your memory: On 17 March 2020, the virologists Kristian Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, Ian Lipkin, Edward Holmes and Robert Gary published a statement in Nature on “The proximal origins of SARS-CoV-2.” Its purpose was to kill lab-leak theories in the womb by presenting an artificial, calculated ‘consensus’ view that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” Its argument depends in part on virus sequences recovered from smuggled pangolins, which have receptor binding domains nearly identical to those in SARS-2. The press reported the Nature piece far and wide, consigning lab leak hypotheses for a time to the realm of conspiracy theory.
eugyppius: a plague chronicle is a reader-supported publication. maybe you subscribe?
The thing about those pangolin viruses, is that they are very, very weird. They allegedly originated with pangolins that Chinese authorities had seized from smugglers in March 2019:
For unfathomable reasons, Guangdong scientists decided to study 21 of the seized animals for viruses, research that culminated in a very strange October 2019 paper announcing (among other things) that two of them had tested positive for SARS-related coronaviruses.
Sequences of these alleged pangolin sarbecoviruses were then released on 22 January 2020. There followed in February the announcement that the spike protein of one of the these pangolin viruses had a receptor binding domain nearly identical to that of SARS-2. Four separate teams then published papers in February describing SARS-related coronaviruses in pangolins, leading to a flood of media reports. Bizarrely, all of these papers turned out to be nothing but deceptive republications of the same virus sequences from the same pangolin samples first announced in the October 2019 paper.
Chan and Ridley naturally have some concerns about all of this:
[W]e find several things unsettling about the whole pangolin episode. There was the publication of a pangolin coronavirus with such a similar spike receptor-binding domain only a few weeks before the emergence of Covid-19; the release of the pangolin coronavirus data behind the 2019 paper on 22 January 2020, the same day that China announced the Huanan seafood market was the culprit; the posting within three days in February of four manuscripts all describing the same pangolin coronavirus; and the variety of scientific issues plaguing some of these papers’ descriptions of the pangolin coronavirus genome with the SARS-CoV-2-like spike RBD. (p. 105f.)
That is not the half of it. Why the sudden interest in pangolin viruses on the eve of the pandemic in the first place? There’s almost no other research on pangolin viruses at all, and for good reason: As Chan and Ridley note, pangolins are very unlikely to be natural hosts for pathogens like this. Whatever SARS-related viruses those 2019 pangolins were carrying, they had from other animals or from their human smugglers – an obvious conclusion that the October 2019 paper studiously avoids.
It doesn’t take very much conspiratorial mindedness, to say that it looks kind of like evidence for pangolins as the animal reservoir of SARS-2 was planted in the scientific literature all the way back in October 2019, when that first Viruses paper appeared. Then, the researchers sprung the trap, releasing the sequences as part of a coordinated media campaign to establish the Huanan Seafood Market as the proximate origins of SARS-2, while various research teams went on to publish different papers on pangolins as the likely hosts, lending the impression that Chinese researchers had identified close SARS-2 relatives in pangolins multiple times independently.
That’s from my review of Viral, by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley. When I wrote it, I missed a crucial detail: The Guangdong researchers announced the nearly-identical pangolin virus receptor binding domains at a press conference on 7 February 2020 – two weeks after they finally released the suspicious sequences on the internet.
What was happening at precisely this moment?
Well, a small “working group” of virologists convened by Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust and Anthony Fauci were hard at work brainstorming that Nature paper on proximal origins. We know, because we have the better part of the correspondence in Fauci’s FOIA’ed emails. The virologists involved were eager to downplay the possibility that SARS-2 had been manipulated or engineered in a lab, even though some of them – including Kristian Andersen and Edward Holmes, co-authors of the Nature paper – privately feared it was a lab virus.
The working group conducted a conference call to develop their ideas on 1 February, and by the 3rd, Holmes and others sent out a draft of the paper, which was fairly non-committal, speaking openly only against the possibility that SARS-2 had been “engineered”. As drafts continued to circulate, Farrar announced he was speaking to the WHO about the matter, and on 7 February, at 1am, he sent the group this important update on the pangolins:
Hours later, he circulated a new draft of the “proximate origins” paper, which now took a hard line against the lab leak hypothesis…
… and also incorporated the late-breaking pangolin news: