Scientist explains his initial email to Fauci on the origins of the virus

Dr. Anthony S. Among the thousands of pages of Fauci’s email Recently released by Buzzfeed News, a brief note by Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., has attracted a lot of attention.

Over the past year, Dr. Anderson has been one of the most vocal proponents of the theory that the coronavirus originated from a natural spillover from an animal to humans outside of a laboratory. But in an email sent to Dr. Fauci in January 2020, Dr. Anderson had not yet reached that conclusion. He told Dr. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, that some characteristics of the virus had made him wonder whether it had been engineered, and noted that he and his colleagues could analyze the virus’s genome to investigate further. were planning.

The researchers published those results in a paper in the scientific journal nature medicine On March 17, 2020, it concluded that a laboratory origin was very unlikely. Dr Anderson has reiterated this view in interviews and on Twitter over the past year, placing him at the center of controversy over whether the virus could have leaked from a Chinese laboratory.

When his initial email to Dr. Fauci was released, a media storm intensified around Dr. Anderson, and he deactivated his Twitter account. He answered emails from The New York Times and written questions about the fracas. The exchange has been lightly edited for length.

Much has been made about your email sent to Dr. Fauci in late January 2020, shortly after the genome of the coronavirus was first sequenced. You said, “The unusual features of viruses make up a very small portion of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some features (potentially) look engineered. "

Can you explain what did you mean?

christian anderson At that time, based on limited data and preliminary analyses, we observed features that appeared to be potentially unique to SARS-CoV-2. We had not yet observed these features in other related viruses from natural sources, and were thus exploring whether they had been engineered into viruses.

Those features include a structure known as the furin cleavage site that binds the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to furin, an enzyme found in human cells, and another structure, known as the receptor binding domain. , which allows the virus to be anchored outside human cells through a cell-surface protein called ACE2.

credit…Scripps Research Institute

You also said that you found the virus genome “not in line with what evolutionary theory expected.”

anderson This was a reference to the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 that we identified based on early analyses, which did not appear to be a clear immediate evolutionary precursor. We have not yet done a more in-depth analysis to arrive at a conclusion, but were sharing our initial observations.

I cautioned in the same email that we would need to look at this question more closely and that our opinion could change within a few days based on new data and analysis – which they did.

In March, You and other scientists published the Nature Medicine paper saying that “we do not believe that any kind of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.” Can you tell how the research changed your view?

anderson Features that initially suggested potential engineering in SARS-CoV-2 were identified in related coronaviruses, meaning that the features we initially thought were unusual were not.

Many of these analyzes were completed within a few days while we worked round the clock, allowing us to reject our initial hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 may have been engineered, while others were “lab”- based scenarios were still operational. table.

Yet more comprehensive analysis, significant additional data, and in-depth investigation to compare genomic diversity across coronaviruses led to a peer-reviewed study published in Nature Medicine. For example, we looked at data from coronaviruses found in other species, such as bats and pangolins, showing that features that previously appeared unique to SARS-CoV-2 were actually found in other, related viruses. Used to go

Overall, it is a textbook example of the scientific method where an initial hypothesis is rejected in favor of a competing hypothesis once more data is available and analysis is complete.

As you know, over the past few weeks there has been a lot of speculation and hype about a particular protein in the coronavirus: the furin cleavage site. some people, Including virologist David BaltimoreAssume that the presence of this protein may be a sign of human manipulation of the virus, whereas you and other virologists have stated that it evolved naturally. Can you explain to readers why you don’t think this is evidence of an engineered virus?

anderson Furin cleavage sites are found throughout the coronavirus family, including the betacoronavirus genus that belongs to SARS-CoV-2. There is much speculation that the patterns found in the RNA of the virus that account for parts of the furin cleavage site represent evidence of engineering. In particular, people are pointing to two “CGG” sequences that code for the amino acid arginine in the furin cleavage site as strong evidence that the virus was created in the lab. Such statements are factually incorrect.

While it is true that CGG is less common than other patterns that code for arginine, the CGG codon is found in the SARS-CoV-2 genome and elsewhere in the genetic sequence.[s] In which the CGG codon found in SARS-CoV-2 is also found in other coronaviruses. These findings, along with many other technical features of the site, strongly suggest that it evolved naturally and there is little chance that anyone may have engineered it.

Do you still believe that all laboratory scenarios are impossible? If not an engineered virus, what about an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab?

anderson As we said in our article last March, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove specific hypotheses of SARS-CoV-2 origin. However, while both laboratory and natural scenarios are possible, they are equally unlikely – a priori, data and other evidence strongly support natural emergence as a highly probable scientific theory for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 , while the laboratory leak remains a speculative one. hypothesis based on conjecture.

Based on the detailed analysis of the virus so far by researchers around the world, it is extremely unlikely that the virus was engineered. Scenario in which the virus was found in nature, brought into the laboratory and then accidentally released[d] Equally impossible based on current evidence.

In contrast, the scientific theory about the natural origin of SARS-CoV-2 offers a far simpler and more likely scenario. The origin of SARS-CoV-2 is very similar to that of SARS-CoV-1, including its seasonality over time, location, and association with the human food chain.

Some people have pointed to your email to Dr. Fauci suggesting that it raises questions About whether scientists and government officials give more credence to the lab-leak theory than the public. and some recent reports have suggested that certain Government officials didn’t want to talk about the lab-leak theory Because it would draw attention to the government’s support of so-called gain-of-function research.

What is your reaction to these suggestions? Were you concerned in the spring of 2020 about the public noticing a lab-leak theory?

anderson My primary concern last spring, which holds true to this day, is to conduct research to understand how SARS-CoV-2 emerged in the human population.

I will not talk to him about what government officials and other scientists did or didn’t say or think. My comments and conclusions are strictly governed by scientific inquiry, and I firmly believe that careful, well-supported public messaging around complex topics is paramount.

Many scientists are now open to the possibility that a laboratory leak did occur. Looking back over the past year, do you have any regrets that you or the wider scientific community have communicated with the public about the idea of ​​a lab-leak?

anderson First, it is important to say that the scientific community has made tremendous inroads into understanding COVID-19 in a remarkably short period of time. Vigorous debate is integral to science and this is what we have seen about the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

For the public, I think it can be difficult at times to observe the debate and understand the potential of the different hypotheses. This is especially true where science tends to be politicized, and the current condemnation of scientists and subject matter experts sets a dangerous precedent. We saw that with the climate change debate and now we are seeing it with the debate on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During this pandemic, I have done my best to help explain what the scientific evidence is and suggests, and I have no regrets.

do you support President Biden’s Call For US intelligence agencies to further investigate these various possibilities? Can they find something that will change your mind?

anderson I have always supported further inquiry into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, including President Biden’s recent call, because it is important that we fully understand how the virus emerged.

As is true for any scientific process, there are many things that would lend credibility to the lab-leak hypothesis that would make me change my mind. For example, any credible evidence that SARS-CoV-2 existed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the pandemic – whether in freezers, tissue culture or in animals, or the epidemiology associated with very early confirmed COVID-19 cases Evidence of. Institute.

Other evidence, were it to emerge, may give further weight to the natural origin hypothesis. It involves the identification of an intermediate [animal] Host (if one exists). Furthermore, now that we know that live animals were sold in markets in Wuhan, further understanding of animal flows and connected supply lines may give additional credence to natural origins.

It looks like you have closed your Twitter account. Why? will you come back?

anderson I have always looked to Twitter as a way to interact with other scientists and the general public to encourage open and transparent dialogue about science.

Increasingly, however, I found that the information and comments I posted were being taken out of context or misrepresented, particularly regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2. Daily attacks against scientists and the scientific method have also become common, and much of the conversation has shifted away from science.

For those reasons, I felt that at present, I could no longer contribute productively to the platform, and decided that it would be time for me to invest more of my time in our infectious disease research, including on COVID-19.

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