Matt Ridley

A volte face over what caused the pandemic needs explaining

Why did scientists suddenly change their minds about the possibility of a leak from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology? Jeremy Farrar offers no good answers

A volte face over what caused the pandemic needs explaining
Text settings

Spike: The Virus vs The People The Inside Story

Jeremy Farrar, with Anjana Ahuja

Profile, pp. 272, £14.99

Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, writes that ‘the last year has been an eye-opener for me. I thought, probably like most people, that the world works through official or formal channels, but much of it operates through private phone calls or messaging apps’. Hence his book, written with the journalist Anjana Ahuja, is a gossipy, sometimes angry, fast-paced tale, which quotes frequently from his own messages sent to other important people. No holds are barred or formal channels kept to.

It is therefore a fascinating and valuable account from somebody who was close to the action, as a member of the famous Sage, and one who played a key role in several important initiatives, including, for example, kicking off the successful Recovery trial of anti-Covid treatments after a chance meeting on a bus. Many of his observations are acute, and some of his suggestions are well made, not least his passionate call for Britain to set an example by sending vaccines to the rest of the world rather than vaccinating the relatively invulnerable young.

Farrar is full of praise for some people, such as fellow Sage members and Dominic Cummings, and full of contempt for others, including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and any lockdown sceptic. He may or may not be right, but after a while the reader begins to feel a little uneasy at a certain double standard. ‘Intermittent lockdowns’ are the answer in chapter 5, but reopening after the first lockdown is a disastrous mistake in chapter 6. Johnson is criticised for not paying attention to the crisis in February 2020 a few pages after Farrar describes his own skiing holiday in... February.

In this book civil servants are ‘fantastic’ while politicians are hopeless. The government is idiotic, but more government is the answer. Public Health England is excused for the fact that Germany used the private sector to ramp up testing many times faster than Britain. Neil Ferguson is forgiven for breaking rules he pushed for, and Chris Whitty for flirting with herd immunity, while others, such as the organisers of the Great Barrington declaration, are lambasted in strongly worded terms (shortly after a section on how nasty other people can be). Farrar’s targets are always motivated by ideology, his friends by science. He says nothing to rebut the critique that Sage did not engage with other viewpoints and quickly became a victim of its own groupthink.

This results in the book being a missed opportunity. It would be refreshing to read Farrar’s view on the practical but nuanced arguments made by plenty of good epidemiologists that while some restrictions were necessary at times, sheltering the vulnerable and other measures might have worked better than mandatory lockdowns at others. There is no mention of the health costs of lockdowns — the missed cancer diagnoses, the delayed operations, the mental health impacts — or the fact that lockdowns are easy for those who can work from home but brutal for those who cannot. The impression is given, rightly or wrongly, that Sage never discussed this.

In another part of the book the informal exchange of messages and phone calls proves most intriguing. Farrar has been candid about an incident where others have been less so. In late January 2020, watching the new virus, Farrar was ‘beginning to suspect this might be a lab accident’, so he emailed the Australian scientist Eddie Holmes, who was in close contact with scientists in China. Holmes then took a call from Kristian Andersen, a prominent virologist in California, who mentioned two features of the virus that looked suspicious. ‘This is bad,’ said Holmes; ‘I drank about three beers after that call,’ said Andersen.

On 1 February Farrar set up a conference call with these two and several others, including Anthony Fauci, the US President’s chief medical adviser. The participants in that call have not been forthcoming, and disappointingly this book sheds no light on what was said. At the time, Farrar reports, Holmes thought it was 80 per cent probable the virus had originated in a Wuhan laboratory; Andersen 60-70 per cent and Farrar 50 per cent. This is really interesting, because none has aired these thoughts publicly and Holmes and Andersen have both become vocal critics of anybody who talks about a possible laboratory origin. The revelation that they thought the possibility more likely than not is stunning.

Farrar gives no good explanation for the sudden change of mind after that phone call. He merely says that ‘after the addition of important new information, endless analyses, intense discussions and many sleepless nights’, Andersen drafted a paper dismissing the laboratory hypothesis. But the most ‘important new information’ that came forward was the revelation that the closest related virus had come from a sample that had been collected by scientists and brought to the Wuhan Institute of Virology from more than 1,000 miles away, which if anything should have made people more suspicious.

Andersen’s paper gives only flimsy arguments against the possibility of a deliberately engineered virus, which is quite a different proposition from an accident. Moreover, one of those arguments — that the virus was imperfectly designed to attack human cells and an engineer would have made a better job of it — is both unconvincing (it’s suspiciously close to an argument from intelligent design) and a direct contradiction to what Farrar says elsewhere in the book. A few pages before this passage, Farrar writes that the critical part of the virus’s spike protein ‘looked too good to be true — like a perfect “key” for entering human cells’, and that this was one of the reasons he thought a lab origin was possible. So which is it: a good fit, implying a laboratory origin, or a poor fit, implying a natural origin?

One cannot help wondering if the dilemma that the scientists wrestled with in those sleepless nights after 1 February was more political than scientific. What would the implications be for the reputation of science if it had caused the pandemic, and in doing so seemed to vindicate Lord Voldemort himself, one Donald Trump?