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Obtain, but Verify

By Jon Cohen

Just because information is difficult to obtain, it doesn’t mean that the obtained information is particularly meaningful—or accurate.

I plan to discuss this today at Science Writers 2022, a meeting organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. I’m on a panel with other journalists that will explore media coverage of a deeply divisive topic: the COVID-19 pandemic’s origin. One camp contends that the most likely scenario is that SARS-CoV-2 naturally jumped into humans from an animal, while others put more stock into the idea that laboratory research, intentionally or by accident, triggered the pandemic.

I’m a huge advocate for transparency, especially when it involves the government and public funds. I frequently file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. I often encourage sources to share documentation—including material others might not want me to see–to help establish the validity of claims. I plumb archives for records that previously were classified or in collections that weren’t public. So I work hard to find material that’s difficult to obtain and, when it has meaning, I’m thrilled. But it often does not. Obtain, but verify.

During the pandemic, FOIA requests for e-mails sent to or by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), have revealed correspondence that involved me. Some are simply references to my articles. But twice, the released information about me led to inaccurate or speculation-filled reporting and Twitterstorms.

One involved a Page One “exclusive” story in the Washington Post on June 1, 2021, about 866 pages of Fauci’s e-mails the paper had obtained. The story led with an e-mail from George Gao, then head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. I had interviewed Gao for a Q&A, and on March 27, 2020, we ran a story in Science that was headlined “Not wearing masks to protect against coronavirus is a ‘big mistake,’ top Chinese scientist says.”

Shortly after the story appeared, Gao e-mailed Fauci to complain about it. As the Post story reported, Gao wrote:

“I saw the Science interview, how could I say such a word ‘big mistake’ about others? That was journalist’s wording. Hope you understand,” Gao, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote to Fauci in a March 28 email. “Lets work together to get the virus out of the earth.”

Here’s the e-mail and Fauci’s reply.

But Gao did actually use the words “big mistake” in a voice mail to me, which I kept and sent back to him after the Post story appeared. Here it is:

The Post did not attempt to interview me about the story, but after one of my editors contacted editors there, the article was amended to say, “Science magazine stands by its story.”

The truth is starker: The Washington Post’s FOIA request had uncovered what seemed like a tidbit of intriguing information, but it was false.

The second Fauci e-mail that involved me was sent to him by Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at Scripps Research.

On July 25, 2020, I received an anonymous e-mail complaining about a credit issue, which are common in science, that involved Andersen and a second evolutionary biologist, Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney. They had co-authored a much-discussed correspondence that appeared in the March 17, 2020 Nature Medicine, entitled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2.” It has received a great deal of attention because it argued against one lab-origin scenario, which had mushroomed into a controversy: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” they wrote.

I was swamped at the time, covering many aspects of the growing pandemic—including the origin issue—but I replied to the anonymous letter writer, saying thank you and that I would check it out.

As the Fauci e-mail reveals, I sent a somewhat flippant note to Andersen and Holmes that said, “Here’s what one person who claims to have inside knowledge is saying behind your backs…” This was my admittedly cheeky way of asking for their reply.

Unbeknownst to me Andersen sent my e-mail to Fauci and Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust.

In reply to a FOIA request from freelance reporter Jimmy Tobias for electronic communications between Fauci and Andersen, NIAID released redacted versions of Andersen’s e-mail to Fauci which included the anonymous note. NIAID, without consulting me, had decided to blacken out the bulk of the anonymous writer’s e-mail.

Lab leak proponents thought the redacted anonymous e-mail contained relevant information to bolster their case and said so repeatedly, on Twitter and in blog posts. They have also urged me, over and over, to release the email and suggested I was hiding important information. I have stated repeatedly that that the e-mail was about a credit dispute, and that they were barking up a tree that had no animal. This did not end the speculation.

At the start of this year, I received this e-mail from Karen Lampe in NIAID’s FOIA office:

I replied that “it should be protected simply because my reporting for Science inappropriately was shared.” I also later told Lampe that while I think my e-mail was redacted for a valid reason, I do question why the FOIA office so aggressively uses its black pen, which frustrates me, too.

I’ve decided now to share the e-mail to underscore my point about the dangers of exaggerating the importance of information just because it’s difficult to obtain—and, in this case, hidden by a government agency. I also am concerned that litigation might force NIAID to release the e-mail, which could give it an even greater sheen of significance that I don’t believe it deserves. (I attempted to reach the anonymous e-mail writer about my decision to release it but have not had a reply, and for what it’s worth, I’ve made a few guesses about the author’s identity that I’m convinced were wrong.)

I told Andersen and Holmes that I planned to release this, as well as their reply. Andersen also asked that I include his initial e-mail to Fauci about the anonymous e-mail, which NIAID also partially redacted.

In retrospect, do I wish I had followed up on the tip? Yes, because it involved a historically significant teleconference with Fauci, Holmes, Andersen, Farrar, and others. (Farrar published his own account of the call in his book Spike.) But the credit issue—especially given the reply by Andersen and Holmes—to this day doesn’t outcompete the other stories I’m pursuing. And it sheds zero light on the question of how the pandemic began.

On Jul 25, 2020, at 7:22 AM, ofu8Iedu8z REDACTED wrote:

Hello Jon

Given your recent mentions of the origin of SARS-CoV-2 I thought you might be interested to hear the bizarre back-story of the paper “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” (

In summary, four of the authors managed to organize a conference call with Anthony Fauci and others, after quietly raising the alarm (or “spreading the rumor”, as Jeremy Farrar apparently put it) that the virus WAS in fact human engineered. On the call were two world-class virologists who actually work on coronaviruses, who set them straight in great detail. That seemed to be the end of the affair.

But, incredibly, Andersen et al. turned around and submitted the Proximal paper to Nature with the exact opposite claim, i.e., that the virus was NOT human engineered. They used (without acknowledgment, of course) all the arguments provided by the coronavirologists on the initial call in which they had tried to raise the human-engineered alarm.

I don’t think it would be too hard to verify all this, if you feel like digging a little. If you’re wondering if this could all possibly be true: ask yourself how this group of authors, none of whom work on coronaviruses, could have such detailed arguments about why SARS-CoV-2 was not human-engineered. The answer is that they couldn’t (and didn’t) – they were schooled by the coronavirus experts on the call.

For the phone conference, Anthony Fauci called in Jeremy Farrar (Director of the Wellcome Trust). Farrar asked the coronavirus experts to join the call to listen to the claims. The call took place on a Saturday in early February (either the 1st or 8th, I’m not sure but I could probably find out). On the call making the claim were: Kristian G. Andersen, Andrew Rambaut, Edward C. Holmes, Robert F. Garry, but not Ian Lipkin.

The coronavirus experts listened for a while and both quickly concluded that the reasoning was completely flawed, that the non-coronavirus virologists had no idea what they were talking about, and that the human-engineered claim was totally wrong. One of the coronavirus experts was entertaining guests that day and told the people on the conference call that they wanted to give their opinion and then go back to the guests. So they told them it was nonsense, gave them a list of reasons why, and got off the call. The other coronavirus expert stayed on the call, gave a similar opinion and the morning afterwards sent a detailed list of the reasons why the claim was certainly wrong.

After the paper with the exact opposite claim was received at Nature, senior editor, Clare Thomas sent it out for review to some of the best people in the world… Not surprisingly, this happened to include a very close colleague of one of the experts who had been on the conference call. You can perhaps imagine the shock. Thomas was quickly appraised of the situation and Nature rejected the paper. It was then sent to Nature Medicine, where it was soon published.

One author on the paper was not on the conference call: Ian Lipkin. It’s not clear how much of the back-story he is aware of. It might be worth giving him a call to ask, in case you feel like investigating. If his co-authors left him in the dark as to what actually happened and he’s worried about the possible fallout he may want to help.

I apologize for mailing you without revealing my name (at least for now). I work in the field and have heard this story from two people who were on the initial call with Fauci. I’m not keen to be personally involved, but I find the situation so outrageous, hypocritical, and shameless that I also find I can’t keep silent. It doesn’t change anything with respect to knowledgeable thinking about the origin of the virus, of course, but it’s a pretty ugly situation that I (obviously) think should be exposed.

[Note added on 10/27/22: I told the NIAID FOIA office in response to an e-mail I received from its representative on October 11, 2022, that I planned to post this and did not want to file a “declaration” to support the redaction. On October 27, 2022, NIAID, as part of litigation filed by Jimmy Tobias, released the unredacted e-mail to him. He posted this Tweet, alerting others to the existence of the last three paragraphs above. When I learned that I had omitted them–which was a cut/paste error that I apologize for–I immediately pasted them in. As I hope is clear from the fact that I no longer supported NIAID redacting this, I had no intention of omitting these paragraphs. Tobias did not make any assumptions about my blunder. But several others on Twitter posted unsupported speculations about my mistake, which again reiterates the point of this essay: They piled on before asking me what had happened. This type of rush to judgment too often feeds the hot fire in the origins debate. Obtain, but verify.]

On Jul 28, 2020, at 3:43 PM, Edward Holmes <> wrote:

Hi Jon,

Here are the facts:

1. On Jan 27 Jeremy Farrar called one of us (Eddie) to say that rumors were coming out of the US that the virus may be engineered, and could he determine whether this had any scientific credibility based on the sequence data. By coincidence, on Jan 31 Kristian independently contacted Eddie to note that there were some features in the SARS-CoV-2 genome that at the time appeared unusual, particularly the furin cleavage site and the receptor binding domain.

2. Following a series of calls between the three of us we decided to convene a group of scientists from Australia, Europe, UK, USA to discuss the evolutionary origins of SARS-CoV-2. Jeremy therefore convened a first phone call on Feb 1. We had a number of subsequent calls with this group. 

3. Notably, the senior author on our paper – Bob Garry – has published a significant number of papers on coronaviruses, including on the SARS spike protein, and even commented on this on the website prior to the first call taking place (  

4. On the first call there were a range of options considered, but all agreed that further analysis should be done and that it had to be done by a group of experts in evolutionary biology, with an open mind, and with the aim to produce a peer reviewed scientific paper to clearly set out the background on the topic and the findings. There was no subterfuge in the publication of the paper, as suggested in the email you forwarded.

5. Over the week following the first call we undertook much more detailed analysis. The scientific (peer reviewed) paper was also drafted and sent to all the people on the first call, and follow-up discussions were arranged. We have attached our first draft of what would eventually become our paper from Feb 7. As you can see, it is essentially the basis of our final study and people on the calls commented on it. Ian Lipkin joined the writing team at a later date.

6. Very shortly after the first call, the pangolin data came out. This was critical, and as Eddie wrote in an email to everyone on the call on Feb 9th:

“Personally, with the pangolin virus possessing 6/6 key sites in the receptor binding domain, I am in favour of the natural evolution theory.”

With Andrew Rambaut replying:

“I am of the view that the natural selection hypothesis is the most likely (specifically the non-bat reservoir). And as Eddie mentioned this is becoming more likely from day to day with the pangolin story.”

7. Hence, it is false to claim that we (i) all thought it was an engineered virus, (ii) that we were corrected (“schooled”) in our views by other coronavirus experts on the call, and (iii) then submitted a Nature paper without anyone else knowing about it. The truth is that we had a range of views among us, our paper included the pangolin data that was not available at the time of the first call, and we circulated drafts of our document to everyone on the calls and received feedback and comments. 

8. Importantly, our study was an evolutionary study based on genomic information, which is the correct way to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2. All the authors on our paper have a strong demonstrated record in answering exactly those types of questions for a multitude of viruses, including coronaviruses.

9. We also categorically deny that we were “spreading the rumor” that the virus was human engineered. As you can see from point 1, this did not come from us. Indeed, at the time, there were rumors – which persist to this day – that SARS-CoV-2 was an engineered virus, but these certainly did not come from us. As you know, the White House OSTP asked for expert opinions on this question too (spurred by the HIV nonsense preprint), and Kristian was part of that panel ( Our study directly addressed these rumors in a scientific way by considering that a lab escape could have occurred. We did not dismiss this possibility out of hand, but we scientifically investigated it.

10. Of course, we had to address the possibility of an engineered virus as one possibility among many: as scientists we have to remain open minded, present all the data and discuss it. That’s what we did. To not have considered or mentioned the range of possibilities would have been negligent. Indeed, the great irony is that the vast majority of the feedback we have received on our paper – including death threats – are people accusing us of dismissing the lab escape theory too quickly.

We do not know the origin of the anonymous email to you or really understand the accusations.  We asked a series of legitimate and crucial biological questions, used emerging data to try and answer the questions and came to our conclusions based on the data – that this is a natural virus.

We have absolutely no problem with people knowing that our views on this issue evolved as more data appeared – data that continues to evolve to this day, as more becomes available. That’s science. And it’s the only way to do it. Indeed, we have told this to many people: the way we set this up was a study of alternative hypotheses equally weighted priors, which we tested – our posterior clearly favors the hypothesis that this is a natural virus.

As far as we can tell we are only ‘guilty’ of following a proper, considered, open minded scientific approach. Our hypotheses and ideas evolved as the data changed. More recent data and analysis would seem to support the conclusions we came to at the start of February –

I hope that is helpful, let us know


Eddie and Kristian

ARC Australian Laureate Fellow
Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases & Biosecurity,
School of Life & Environmental Sciences and School of Medical Sciences,
The University of Sydney | Sydney | NSW | 2006 | Australia
T +61 2 9351 5591