Sir Jeremy Farrar, currently head of the UK’s biggest private research funding body — the Wellcome Trust, originally believed the pandemic have been sparked by ‘Wild West’ virus experiments carried out in the notorious Wuhan site
The influential British scientist who helped crush suggestions that Covid could have leaked from a Chinese laboratory was today named the World Health Organization‘s chief scientist.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, currently head of the UK’s biggest private research funding body — the Wellcome Trust, originally believed the pandemic may have been sparked by ‘Wild West’ virus experiments carried out in the notorious Wuhan site.
But he soon changed his position, co-ordinating an authoritative statement by five top experts that dismissed the idea that the virus may have originated in the lab as merely a conspiracy theory.
Critics hit out at the appointment of Sir Jeremy and called for him to come in front of MPs to be ‘pressed hard’ on the origins of the pandemic and failing to challenge the natural origins hypothesis early on.
Sir Jeremy Farrar reportedly said that the truth about the Covid’s origins will remain ‘grey’ without access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured), which is at the centre of the lab leak theory
Sir Jeremy Farrar: The cricket-loving scientist who helped tackle SARS and Covid
Sir Jeremy Farrar is a Singapore-born scientist who dedicated his career to researching and improving public health.
He lived in Cyprus, New Zealand and Libya during his childhood before moving to the UK as a teenager, according to the Wellcome Trust, where he is director.
He earned a degree in immunology and medicine from University College London (UCL) and a doctorate in neuroimmunology from the University of Oxford before training as a doctor.
Sir Jeremy led the Clinical Research Unit at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for 18 years, where he was on the front line battling potential human pandemics including Sars.
In 2004, the scientist identified the re-emergence of deadly bird flu in humans, alongside his Vietnamese colleague Tran Tinh Hien, according to a 2014 Financial Times interview with the doctor.
He joined the Wellcome Trust medical foundation as director in 2013.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Sir Jeremy served as a member of Sage, the UK Vaccine Taskforce and the ACT-Accelerator, which is a global effort co-ordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to accelerate the development of vaccines and tests and ensure equitable distribution.
According to the Wellcome website, Sir Jeremy has argued that everyone, including those in less developed countries, should benefit equally from scientific advances in the fight against coronavirus.
An internationally recognised figure, the scientist was named 12th in the Fortune list of the greatest global leaders in 2015, and he is also a fellow of several leading medical bodies including the Royal Society and the European Molecular Biology Organisation.
In 2019, Sir Jeremy was knighted for services to global health.
He lives in Oxford with his wife, children and two dogs, and is passionate about cricket, including as a player for Steeple Aston Cricket Club.
The WHO has come under fire for allegedly not challenging China when it said Covid did not spread easily between humans in the early days of the pandemic.
It has also been accused of taking too long to call the outbreak an international emergency, criticised for advising countries against imposing travel bans and praising China’s handling of the outbreak — when others have hit out at the country over its lack of transparency.
The UN health agency also led a probe into the origins of the virus, which saw only Chinese-approved scientists involved. The resulting report was widely labelled as ‘white-washed’.
Sir Jeremy, a distinguished tropical diseases expert, who was knighted in 2019, is set to be interviewed under oath by the US congress over concerns he was at the centre of a cover-up about the origins of Covid.
The scientist, who was paid £500,000 last year for his role at Wellcome, will be questioned on-the-record over his role in ‘apparent conflicts of interest’ and ‘suppression of scientific discourse’.
Committee members tasked with probing his insights demanded he handed over all the documents related to his discussions with senior figures on the subject.
An order sent to him alleged that he was part of a ‘possible co-ordinated effort to conceal evidence pointing to a lab leak in Wuhan’.
Concerns are centered around a video meeting he held in early February 2020, during which he shared concerns that the virus may have emerged from a lab in Wuhan.
He reportedly said at the time, as the pandemic exploded across the planet, that the truth about the virus’ origins will remain ‘grey’ without access to the lab.
And in email discussions with top scientists, including chief medical adviser to the White House, Anthony Fauci, Sir Jeremy simply responded to claims that the Wuhan lab was carrying out high risk experiments in a insufficiently secure lab with: ‘Wild West.’
Scientists at the site engaged in ‘gain of function’ experiments that can boost infectivity.
However, Sir Jeremy quickly changed his stance and signed a statement in the Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals, which labelled the lab leak hypothesis a ‘conspiracy theory’ and praised China’s effort to tackle the disease.
The journal has since said the lab leak theory should be taken ‘seriously’.
But he also quietly assisted five scientists to write a commentary in Nature Medicine, stating that the authors ‘do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible’.
Sir Jeremy will take over at the WHO in the second quarter of 2023.
He will leave his role at Wellcome in early 2023, with Paul Schreier, the charity’s chief operating officer, taking over as interim chief executive officer.
Sir Jeremy will have served two five-year terms leading Wellcome, which funnels £1.6billion into research per year.
He advised the UK Government during the pandemic as a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and co-authored a book entitled ‘Spike: The Virus v The People’ that offered his ‘inside story’ on how the crisis unfolded and criticised the UK’s handling of the pandemic.
Sir Jeremy quit SAGE during the pandemic after condemning the country’s laissez-faire response.
Announcing his move to the WHO, he said Wellcome has played ‘no small part’ in ‘breath-taking and life-changing advances in science and health’ over the last decade.
He said: ‘I leave taking with me enormous pride in what we have achieved together – and do so knowing Wellcome’s mission to improve health has never been more focused in the hands of the amazing teams that make Wellcome what it is today.’
The WHO role will see Sir Jeremy ensure new drugs, tests and vaccines are equally accessible around the world.
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he is ‘delighted’ that Sir Jeremy will be joining the agency at a ‘critical time in global public health’. Dr Tedros himself has come under scrutiny for his ‘China-centric’ handling of the pandemic, heaping praise on the country
While China has insisted the virus originated elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have contemplated the possibility it leaked from a high-level biochemical lab in Wuhan – raising suspicions that Chinese officials simply hid evidence of the early spread
The question of whether the global outbreak began with a spillover from wildlife sold at the market or leaked out of the Wuhan lab just eight miles across the Yangtze River has given rise to fierce debate about how to prevent the next pandemic. Studies point to a natural spillover at the Huanan wildlife market. Positive swab samples of floors, cages and counters also track the virus back to stalls in the southwestern corner of the market (bottom left), where animals with the potential to harbour Covid were sold for meat or fur at the time (bottom right)
DID COVID LEAK FROM A WUHAN LAB? THE EVIDENCE FOR AND AGAINST
Evidence for Wuhan lab-leak theory
An article in the respected Science journal on May 14 2021 kick-started the surge in interest for the lab-leak theory.
Some 18 experts wrote in the journal that ‘we must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data’.
Later that month, a study by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen claimed it had ‘prima facie evidence of retro-engineering in China’ for a year.
The study included accusations of ‘deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data’ at Chinese labs.
It followed statements from the WHO Director General, US and EU that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve.
Previously, the theory had been dismissed as conspiracy by most experts, partly because of its association with President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden in May 2021 ordered a full investigation into the origin of the pandemic virus and demanded scientists work out whether there is truth to the theory.
In December 2021, Harvard scientist Dr Alina Chan told the UK’s Science and Technology Select Committee that it is ‘reasonable’ to believe that Covid was genetically engineered in China.
She also said that the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan two years ago and attempts to sabotage the World Health Organisation’s inquiry into the origins of the pandemic made the lab-leak theory likely.
The head of the World Health Organization insisted just a day earlier that the theory that Covid emerged from a Wuhan lab has not been ruled out — as he said China should help solve the mystery out of ‘respect’ for the dead.
The body’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, suggested that Beijing had not cooperated fully as he urged more ‘transparency’ in the continuing investigation.
And a senior Government source claimed in June 2022 that the WHO boss privately believes the pandemic kicked off following a leak from a Chinese lab.
In September 2022, leading medical journal the Lancet admitted the virus may have been leaked from a lab, including those in the US.
Evidence against the theory
Most of the scientific community say the virus is most likely of natural origin.
A series of papers point to the virus evolving in animals before being transmitted to humans, in the same way as all other previously discovered coronaviruses.
The first study, published in Scientific Reports, showed some 47,000 wild animals from 38 species were sold across four markets in Wuhan between May 2017 and November 2019.
The authors, including Dr Chris Newman, an evolutionary ecologist at Oxford University, claimed the evidence showed the conditions for animal-to-human transmission were in place in Wuhan.
But they acknowledged there was no proof Sars-CoV-2 was present or originated in any of these animals.
A joint World Health Organization-China investigation also concluded it was ‘very likely’ the virus jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal.
And a June 2022 report by the WHO sets out that Covid most likely originated in bats before infecting humans.
The agency said its science division was ‘instrumental in making WHO the trusted source of the best scientific evidence about Covid, its treatment and prevention’.
It also plays a ‘key role’ in tacking misinformation.
Three divisions make up the department, which are focused on research, setting global norms and standards in healthcare and supporting digital health and innovation.
Sir Jeremy will replace Soumya Swaminathan, an Indian paediatrician who has guided the UN agency since 2019.
Bob Seely, Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, told MailOnline: ‘I would love to see Sir Jeremy back in front of a committee on this subject and explain why, in private, he was worried about a lab leak when in public he was saying the opposite.
‘Was it about appeasing China or the WHO? Was this the result of him downplaying the chance of there being leak?
‘There are so many questions about how scientist did not follow the science and their gut and may have done harm to public health globally.’
He added: ‘Does he think [the WHO origins investigation] was white washed?
‘Will he conduct a serious investigation into the origins of the greatest pandemic in 50 years?’
In response to Sir Jeremy’s appointment, an expert — who has been critical of attempts to stifle debate around the origins of the pandemic — speaking anonymously, said: ‘Blimey.
‘Onwards and upwards for the SAGE membership.
‘He’s following Susan Michie, the member of the British Communist Party who also landed a WHO sinecure.
‘In Farrar’s book about his role in the Covid period, co-authored with a FT journalist, he conveniently omits to discuss the role of the Wellcome Trust in suppressing the leak hypothesis.’
It is unclear who appointed Sir Jeremy for his new WHO role.
But WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he is ‘delighted’ that Sir Jeremy will be joining the agency at a ‘critical time in global public health’.
Dr Tedros himself has come under scrutiny for his ‘China-centric’ handling of the pandemic, heaping praise on the country.
It is not the first time that Dr Tedros has been accused of cosying up to China. Shortly after his first WHO election victory in 2017, it was alleged that Chinese diplomats had been heavily involved in lobbying for him.
UN records also show that Chinese contributions to both the aid budget in Ethiopia — where Dr Tedros served as health and foreign minister — and the WHO have substantially increased during times when he was in top leadership positions.
However, Dr Tedros has criticised China’s Zero Covid strategy as unsustainable.
Consensus over how the pandemic began three years ago in Wuhan has slowly started to shift.
While the majority of virologists say the virus had natural origins, a growing number believe it could have been a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
At first, the overwhelming opinion — shared by the world’s leading experts — was that Covid crossed naturally from animals infected with a bat coronavirus.
China repeatedly denied it was to blame for the outbreak — blaming a wet market in Wuhan as the source of the outbreak and even pointing the finger at the US.
Fuelled by revelations that the likes of Sir Jeremy and Fauci believed the lab leak was legitimate, the hypothesis has gained traction.
China’s secrecy — in not providing vital access to scientists probing the origins and accusations of covering up evidence from the early days of the pandemic by wiping key databases — has only added fuel to the fire.
The truth on how Covid emerged will never be known, however.
The WHO’s controversial appointment comes after the virologist who funded the Wuhan lab at the centre of Covid leak claims proudly filmed himself inside a bat-filled cave.
Dr Peter Daszak, who was born in England but now lives in upstate New York, posted a video on his Twitter filmed from the depths of the Ratchaburi Cave in Thailand.
He was surrounded by 2.5million of the creatures he thinks SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the pandemic, may have come from. He referred to the cave as the ‘reactor core’ of viral activity.
Dr Daszak called Sir Jeremy in the days before he praised Chinese efforts to tackle Covid in the Lancet article.