The Perfect Enemy | The COVID Lab-Leak Theory, Jeffrey Sachs, and Peter Daszak - New York Magazine
February 25, 2024

The COVID Lab-Leak Theory, Jeffrey Sachs, and Peter Daszak – New York Magazine

The COVID Lab-Leak Theory, Jeffrey Sachs, and Peter Daszak  New York MagazineView Full Coverage on Google News

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: CNN/Getty Images/The Lancet Commission

On a Thursday morning in September, members of The Lancet’s COVID-19 Commission gathered for a virtual press conference to announce the findings of their two-year investigation into all things pandemic related. Leading it was Jeffrey Sachs, the world-renowned economist who chaired the commission. After a short opening statement, he dove into a summary of the group’s 57-page final report, starting at as natural a place as any: the beginning.

“We do not know where SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused this pandemic, came from. Some scientists surmise that it came from a marketplace. Many scientists are worried that it came out of a laboratory through work that was underway on SARS-like viruses,” Sachs said. “Both hypotheses are viable. Neither has been disproved.”

To most people watching, Sachs’s remark was a simple statement of fact. Three years after the earliest reports of COVID-19, few scientists will entirely rule out either theory absent conclusive evidence, which may be impossible to find given China’s initial cover-up. But the mere mention of origins irritated a number of people because, exactly one year earlier, Sachs had unilaterally disbanded a task force within The Lancet commission dedicated to studying COVID’s origins, accusing members of hiding what he believed were conflicts of interest — the nature of their research before the pandemic and their connections to the Wuhan research institute many suspect to have accidentally leaked the virus.

“I’m extraordinarily glad I did that because between then and now we’ve really been able to peek behind the curtain at a lot of what happened in the early days of this pandemic, and it’s all very, very inappropriate,” Sachs told me via Zoom. His frustration was still evident.

In the early days of the pandemic, Sachs believed the prevailing natural-origin theory and denounced the dissenting lab-leak theory as “reckless and dangerous.” Over the next two years, though, he did an about-face and in the process found himself at the center of the most contentious, vitriolic scientific debate of the century.

Not long ago, people who suggested that researchers might have accidentally unleashed the virus were written off as kooks or China hawks, which confined much of the early public discussion of the lab-leak theory to the fun houses of the far right. Now the theory is getting increasing consideration. “In some ways, it’s quite similar to the Hunter Biden laptop situation,” said Alina Chan, scientific adviser to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “Because the central or liberal media refused to cover it properly, it gave free rein to all of the right-wing media to report in the most polarizing, exaggerated way possible and inflame tensions.”

The terrain shifted further this week when the Department of Energy changed its opinion from undecided to “low confidence” that SARS-CoV-2 had “most likely” come from a lab leak, an opinion shared by the FBI. Since 2021, the U.S. intelligence community has been divided, saying in a short report that both “hypotheses are plausible.” The debate isn’t settled in the government, and most of the agencies looking at relevant intelligence consider natural origins more probable. Still, the news is the sort of imprimatur Sachs has been looking for. “The truth is coming out step-by-step,” he said. “It is being ‘allowed’ out in part because of the anti-China spin put on it. Yet this is heavily a U.S. affair. That truth will also emerge.”  

The truth, in the minds of Sachs and his allies, includes an effort organized by top virus researchers and the U.S. government to guide the origins narrative away from a lab leak. “Fauci behaved very badly,” Sachs said, “NIH behaved very badly, a small group of very vocal scientists that were part of that group have behaved very badly. And while we still don’t know definitively what happened, we do know definitively that a narrative was concocted in the first few days that was phony.”

The mission is consistent with Sachs’s long-held skepticism of official stories. “The U.S. government has lied on big issues most of my life, because I grew up in the Vietnam War era, in the Kennedy-assassination era, in Watergate,” he said. “Governments lie for a living. That’s not conspiracy theory; that is how governments operate because they deal in power. They don’t deal in truth.”

Sachs’s critics accuse him of playing politics with the commission and fanning the flames of a conspiracy theory, and what started as a collaborative fact-finding mission among some of the world’s brightest minds has devolved into a feud full of personal accusations and animus. “A number of people think that Jeff is going off the rails,” said Sir Richard Roberts, a Nobel Prize–winning biochemist and microbiologist who has known Sachs for decades. “He’s got some idea in his head, and he’s really pushing it, and I think it’s detrimental to science, and I’m afraid it’s also detrimental to Jeff. He’s making a bit of a fool of himself.”

Scientists like Roberts say Sachs’s rhetoric around COVID’s origins may jeopardize funding for virus research that they believe could one day prevent or mitigate future pandemics. But Sachs sees the origins investigation as part of an essential check on that work, specifically on so-called “gain of function” research on viruses that sometimes makes them more transmissible or deadlier — which he thinks is dangerous and risky. “We have had more than 1.2 million deaths in the United States from COVID, and we’ve had almost 18 million deaths to date worldwide,” he said. “It’s not a game to me.”

Wuhan Institute of Virology in February 2021. Photo: Thomas Peter/REUTERS

In the spring of 2020, Richard Horton, the longtime editor-in-chief of The Lancet, one of the world’s most prominent medical journals, approached Sachs to lead a commission to study a wide range of aspects of the pandemic. He was uniquely equipped to lead a group of scientists, diplomats, and public-health experts. Not only had he overseen global public-health initiatives over the decades, but he had achieved a level of stardom — being photographed with Matt Damon for a spread in L’Uomo Vogue or touring Africa with Angelina Jolie — that would surely raise the commission’s profile. Sachs accepted Horton’s invitation and got to work  setting up 12 task forces within the commission, including one on COVID’s origins.

Sachs’s ambitions are hard to overstate; after all, he wrote a book called The End of Poverty (with a foreword by Bono). “His ultimate goal is to change the world — to ‘bend history,’ as he once said, quoting Robert F. Kennedy,” wrote Nina Munk in The Idealist, a biography of Sachs. By the early aughts, he had risen from wonky academic to celebrity public intellectual. According to Munk, people in Sachs’s inner circle affectionately called him a “shit disturber,” someone whose ego was offset by a selfless genius and a penchant for challenging orthodoxies. “There’s a certain messianic quality about him,” George Soros, one of his patrons, told Munk, “and it needs to be kept under critical control.”

At the time Horton tapped Sachs, the dominant viewpoint was that SARS-CoV-2 had emerged from nature with the leading suspect being a live animal at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in an area where the first cluster of COVID cases was concentrated in late 2019. Months after those cases emerged, in February 2020, The Lancet published a letter signed by 27 top scientists from nine countries “to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

The scientists published the letter in response to an ascendant alternative theory, which became known as the lab-leak hypothesis. (This magazine teased out the lab-leak hypothesis in January 2021.) Proponents wondered whether it might be more than a coincidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which held one of the world’s largest collections of bat coronavirus sequences, was a mere eight miles from the seafood market. The theory encompassed a number of possibilities, including that a researcher had been infected while collecting samples at a cave, that someone had been infected while working with a sample in the lab, or even more problematic, that SARS-CoV-2 could have been created by scientists at the institute before escaping into the outside world. At the same time, Donald Trump and his aides were suggesting, among other things, that the virus was a bioweapon targeting the United States, which opened up the lab-leak proponents, even those who were simply calling for a thorough investigation, to accusations that they were propping up a president who wielded conspiracy theories for political gain.

Sachs’s views on the matter seemed settled even before Horton appointed him to lead the commission. In May 2020, he wrote an opinion column for CNN headlined “Trump’s Anti-China Theory Implodes,” in which he said right-wing politicians pointing fingers at the Wuhan lab could “push the world to conflict.” He continued, “Neither the biology nor chronology support the laboratory-release story.”

Two weeks earlier, the Trump administration had prematurely ended an NIH grant supporting EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based nonprofit funding research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan institute. EcoHealth was run by the British American disease ecologist Peter Daszak, a leading researcher of bat coronaviruses who, like Sachs, worked at Columbia University. Soon after, Sachs reached out to him. “I liked the fact that he was quite involved in China, knew a lot about natural spillovers, and was the guy doing this. So I thought, Gee, it would be great if he would lead the task force,” Sachs said.

To some, Daszak’s appointment looked like a knee-jerk rejection of Trump’s lab-leak blather, rather than a genuine scientific attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery. Critics said his relationship with the Wuhan institute should have been disqualifying, not least because the potential ramifications of a confirmed lab leak would jeopardize his life’s work. In a National Review story, Richard Ebright, a chemical biologist at Rutgers University, derided The Lancet group as an “entirely Potemkin commission.” To him, entrusting Daszak with the origins task force was like handing the keys of an investigation to one of its prime suspects.

Not long after the commission was up and running, Daszak sensed that Sachs was testing the waters of the lab-leak hypothesis. In July, Sachs forwarded Daszak a story outlining the theory that an antecedent to SARS-CoV-2 might have been collected from a bat in a mine shaft 800 miles away from Wuhan: “Can we discuss this …?” Sachs wrote. Over the phone, Daszak explained to Sachs why he believed the theory was implausible and noted that the story had been published by a small science website.

“It became clear to me over the summer of 2020 that Jeff Sachs was beginning to believe some of this stuff,” Daszak said in an interview. “You have this theory that it came from a lab, you have this theory that it came from the Mojiang mine. Almost every one of them, he would then get in touch with me and ask me to explain what we knew and to include it in our report. All of the task force then agreed to include all possible hypotheses and assess them and include them in our report.”

Meanwhile, Sachs was in a tug-of-war with the rest of the task force over whether he could sit in on their interviews with experts. Daszak and the rest of the group pushed back, saying any legitimate scientific study needed independence from its sponsor. Daszak said he told Sachs the members had signed agreements with subjects stating that their interviews would never be given to anyone outside of the task force, a measure intended to help their subjects — including a top scientist at the Wuhan institute — speak candidly without fear of their funding being jeopardized if their words were misconstrued. Sachs felt, as chair of the commission, that he had a right to observe the interviews.

With the task force refusing to budge, Sachs found a work-around; he got transcripts from someone at EcoHealth who had transcribed the interviews. It was the breaking point, according to Dr. Gerald Keusch, a task-force member and the associate director of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. “At that point, we felt we could no longer trust Jeff,” said Keusch, who had known Sachs for decades.

By then, Sachs was beginning to question everything about the task force. He confronted Daszak over the contents of an NIH grant to EcoHealth that showed the nonprofit’s involvement in research testing chimeric bat coronaviruses on mice at the Wuhan institute, work that Daszak described to me as “recombinant viral technology” but that many other scientists call gain-of-function research. (Sachs asked for the full proposal, but Daszak refused, citing ongoing litigation.) Sachs called scientists, some of whom he had known for decades, to talk through the origins. According to some of those scientists, Sachs felt Daszak had deceived him about his connections to the Wuhan lab and the nature of the research being conducted there.

By June 2021, Daszak was out as chair of the origins task force. (He said he stepped down, and Sachs said he demanded Daszak’s resignation.) Daszak maintains Sachs simply didn’t understand what a conflict of interest was for a scientist: Of course, he had worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology; that was precisely the reason Sachs had chosen him for the job. Limiting the investigation to people without ties to the institute would have disqualified many of the world’s top bat-coronavirus experts from participating. “Dr. Sachs looked for a public rationale to close down the task force,” Daszak said. “He cited the fact that some members had collaborated with Chinese scientists or scientists at EcoHealth Alliance as a reason for closing down this work, when that is exactly why they were invited into the group. Ask yourself this — if you want to know what was happening in a country where a disease emerged, wouldn’t you be best off asking people who’d worked there?”

To Sachs, what started as a Daszak problem became a task-force problem when he realized other members of the group seemed to have their own hidden conflicts of interest. After Daszak stepped down as chair that summer, the task force nominated Keusch as its new chair, but in early September, The Intercept published documents showing four task-force members, including Keusch, were listed as partners on an EcoHealth grant proposal to NIH.

Ever since Sachs had gone around the task force to get its interview transcripts, members had paused their work. At the same time, the revelations about ties between EcoHealth and the Wuhan lab fueled Sachs’s belief that the scientists weren’t being transparent. Even those who called the lab-leak hypothesis a conspiracy theory thought members of the task force had erred by not fully disclosing their ties to the Wuhan lab.

With both sides at an impasse, Keusch set up a meeting with Horton, The Lancet editor-in-chief, and another editor to discuss how they might proceed. The meeting was scheduled for September 16, but the day before, Sachs unilaterally disbanded the task force. “We were blindsided,” said Keusch. (In a statement, The Lancet wrote, “All final decisions about commissioners and other contributors are made by the commission chair.”)

The scientists who had worked closely with Sachs said they believed his ego had gotten in the way of their investigation. Some suggested he had latched on to the lab-leak theory because he knew a media-friendly narrative when he saw one. Others even questioned his grasp of the science. “Don’t tell us, Mr. Macroeconomist, how to do the scientific work,” Keusch said. Another, Danielle Anderson, an Australian virologist who conducted research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, wrote in an email, “I have placed Sachs in the same category as Alex Jones — not worth engaging in discussion about.”

Sachs’s next move did little to quiet his detractors’ claims that he was trafficking in a conspiracy theory. In August 2022, he sat for an hour-long podcast interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of Sachs’s first political hero, who is best known as the world’s foremost anti-vaxxer. (Two days before Kennedy released the episode, Facebook and Instagram suspended the accounts of his organization, Children’s Health Defense, for spreading medical misinformation.) While Sachs didn’t discuss vaccines with Kennedy, he did talk about his changing viewpoint on the lab-leak theory and gleefully dished on his experience with Daszak and the task force. Kennedy, whose latest book accuses Dr. Anthony Fauci of aiding “a historic coup d’état against western democracy,” seemed chuffed to hear someone as highly regarded as Sachs connect the lab-leak dots between NIH, Fauci, and Daszak.

Lab leakers said Sachs had simply chosen the wrong venue to voice a scientific theory. Still, he chose to air that theory to an audience primed to believe outlandish and dangerous versions of it. “The Venn-diagram circles are really starting to overlap between the anti-vaccine movement and the so-called lab-leak movement. I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan. “Conspiracies beget conspiracies.”

When asked why he went on Kennedy’s podcast, Sachs was unapologetic. He said he was friends with Kennedy and the two had agreed not to discuss vaccines. “I have a respect for the Kennedy family that is very deep, long held, and, frankly, if anyone is allowed to have conspiracy theories in this country, it’s the Kennedy family and that’s no joke,” he said.

Sachs’s appearance on Kennedy’s podcast might have been particularly harrowing for Horton, who was less than three years into his role as editor-in-chief in 1998 when The Lancet published Andrew Wakefield’s study that falsely suggested a link between the measles vaccine and autism. Horton was lambasted for years for not retracting the paper until 2010, by which point it had become a foundational text for the modern anti-vaxx movement. “I think this is the last thing The Lancet wants a connection to,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Vaccine Research Center, who was a member of The Lancet’s COVID-19 commission. As a prominent vaccine researcher, Hotez was once labeled public enemy No. 1 by Kennedy. “I don’t know what Jeff’s thinking these days. It’s tough because we’ve been friends for 30 years and he’s mentored me and I’ve been a great admirer of his over the years. I just don’t know what’s causing him to take this pivot,” Hotez said.

By the time Sachs appeared on Kennedy’s podcast, The Lancet’s commissioners had already drafted their final report. Ultimately, they didn’t move the status quo. “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains unknown,” the report concluded, adding that “commissioners held diverse views about the relative probabilities of the two explanations, and both possibilities require further scientific investigation.” The veterans of the task force that Sachs disbanded continued to work independently and published their own report in October. Anderson told Science they concluded there was “overwhelming” evidence of a natural spillover, but they also accepted the possibility of a lab leak.

Sachs reserved some of his frustration for the mainstream media, which he says have all but ignored his calls on the origins issue. He finds the New York Times, once his go-to paper, hard to read these days. His recent interactions with mainstream outlets have raised hackles on other issues as well. In October, he appeared on Bloomberg TV and declared the U.S. was the likely culprit behind the apparent attack on Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines. More recently, Sachs seemed to cut short an interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner but not before Chotiner wondered whether Sachs’s appearance on Kennedy’s podcast was proof that the economist had changed in recent years.

Before our interview was over, Sachs made clear that his lab-leak proselytizing was in line with his long history of demanding government accountability. “These issues need airing,” Sachs told me. “They need to be discussed systematically. And it’s not just to disturb the shit; it’s what we ought to be doing. We ought to be having grown-up discussions.”