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Information and resources on SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19)

A Timeline of Events

Timeline of SARS-CoV-2 Origins
  • December 31, 2019,the WHO’s Country Office in the People’s Republic of China picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission from their website on cases of ‘viral pneumonia’ in Wuhan, People’s Republic of China.
  • January 1, 2020, the WHO requested information on the reported cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan from the Chinese authorities.
  • January 2, 2020, the WHO Representative in China wrote to the National Health Commission, offering WHO support and repeating the request for further information on the cluster of cases.\
  • January 3, 2020, Chinese officials provided information to WHO on the cluster of cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ identified in Wuhan. 
  • January 4, 2020, the WHO tweeted that there was a cluster of pneumonia cases – with no deaths – in Wuhan, Hubei province, People’s Republic of China, and that investigations to identify the cause were underway. The WHO issued the first Disease Outbreak News report on January 5, 2020.
  • January 9, 2020, the WHO reported that Chinese authorities have determined that the outbreak is caused by a novel coronavirus.
  • January 11, 2020, the WHO tweeted that it had received the genetic sequences for the novel coronavirus from the People’s Republic of China and expected these to soon be made publicly available. 
  • January 14, 2020, the WHO held a press briefing during which it stated that, “it is certainly possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission”. WHO tweeted that preliminary investigations by the Chinese authorities had found “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”.
  • January 20-21, 2020, the WHO conducted the first mission to Wuhan and met with public health officials to learn about the response to the cluster of cases of novel coronavirus.  
  • January 22, 2020, the WHO mission to Wuhan issued a statement saying that evidence suggested human-to-human transmission in Wuhan but that more investigation was needed to understand the full extent of transmission.


The Missing Weeks [February 2020]

Through a trove of government memos, emails, and other documents obtained by the U.S. Right to Know organization through FOIA requests, as well as from information released by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, details from February 20202 are emerging of conversations and actions taken by a number of academic and government scientists, to sway public opinion on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 away from a possible lab-leak to one of natural zoonotic spillover.

Mid-January 2020

Robert Redfield, then CDC Director and virologist voiced concern that a lab accident could have occurred in Wuhan, and shared his concerns with Anthony Fauci, and various others. Despite his experience as a virologist and his early warnings, he was not included in any conversations regarding the origin of SARS-CoV-2. According to Redfield “they wanted a single narrative and I obviously had a different point of view," though Fauci has denied that Redfield was puposefuly excluded.

Redfield later described  the proximal origin paper as "antithetical to science" in that it's function was to preclude debate, and has called for the paper to be retracted.

January 27, 2020

In the last week of January, Farrar noticed email chatter among credible scientists “suggesting the virus looked almost engineered to infect human cells,” according to his memoir Spike.

Farrar acquires about receiving a second phone specifically for discussing the origin of SARS-CoV-2. “We should use different phones; avoid putting things in emails; and ditch our normal email addresses and phone contacts,” Farrar wrote in his memoir. “I didn’t know the term then but I now had a burner phone, which I would use only for this purpose and then get rid of.”

By this time Anthony Fauci has learned that his institute indirectly funded Wuhan Institute of Virology, through a grant to EcoHealth Alliance. (FOIA'd email)

From this redacted email there is concern of a 2015 paper coauthored by University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric and Zhengli Shi, the virologist known as "bat woman" at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The article in Nature Medicine, "A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence", generated concern at the time of publication as to whether such gain-of-function research could generate a "SARS 2" and was one of the reasons behind the 2017 moratorium on gain of function research imposed by the Obama administration.

One of Ralph Baric's areas of expertise was how proteolytic cleavage sites like the furin cleavage site aid the entry of coronaviruses into mammal cells and how to insert such sites. This 2015 paper by Baric initially appeared to the group of virologists to be “a how-to manual for building the Wuhan coronavirus in a laboratory,” alarming Fauci. But Baric was excluded from subsequent discussions because he was seen as too close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to Holmes. “We said ‘let’s not invite Ralph,’” Holmes said.

January 28, 2020

Farrar recalls in his memoir Spike, that he called Edward Holmes, concerned about a recent preprint uploaded to the preprint server BioRxiv and increasing chatter about the possibility that there was a lab leak accident. The preprint, coauthored by Zhengli Shi at the WIV, described the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and compared the virus to similar bat coronaviruses discovered by the Wuhan lab, including a coronavirus called RaTG13 which had a 96% similarity to SARS-CoV-2.

January 29, 2020

According to Farrar's memoir, Kristian Andersen became alarmed that a bat coronavirus may have been engineered to infect humans, pointing to the receptor binding domain and furin cleavage site.“Andersen found a scientific paper where exactly this technique had been used to modify the spike protein of the original SARS-CoV-1 virus, the one that had caused the SARS outbreak of 2002/3,” Farrar wrote. “The pair knew of a laboratory where researchers had been experimenting on coronaviruses for years: the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in the city at the heart of the outbreak.”

Other worrying information that Andersen shared with Holmes on that first Zoom call, according to Holmes’ retelling: Two restriction sites called “BamH” that approximately flanked the furin cleavage site along the virus’ genome. These restriction sites are commonly used for genetic engineering, but also occur in nature.

January 31, 2020

Farrar asks to speak privately with Fauci. Farrar then told Fauci “the people involved” included three top virologists: Andersen, Garry and Holmes.

Fauci then speaks to Anderson privately, and Andersen wrote back to Fauci: While SARS-CoV-2 fits within the family tree of bat coronaviruses, that doesn’t illustrate whether it has been engineered. Indeed, the virus looks unnatural to Andersen and three other virologists, he wrote. “You have to look very closely at the genome to see features that are potentially engineered… I should mention that after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike, and myself all find the genome to be inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” he wrote. “We have a good team lined up to look at this, so we should know more by the end of the weekend.”

February 1, 2020

“IMPORTANT,” Fauci wrote in the subject line of an email to an aide a little after midnight — about two hours after Andersen told him the genome may not have evolved naturally. “Hugh: It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on,” he wrote.

He instructed Hugh Auchincloss, NIAID principal deputy director, to read the attached paper and added an urgent instruction: “You will have tasks today that must be done.” The attached paper was likely the 2015 Nature paper coauthored by Baric and Shi; a study NIH had funded through a grant to EcoHealth Alliance — which Fauci had been alerted to in “talking points” on Jan. 27. The file name included the phrase “SARS Gain of function.”

Fauci then called Andersen and told him to discuss with Holmes and other evolutionary biologists to examine his concerns about genetic engineering.

Farrar invited Fauci to a teleconference later that day. “My preference is to keep this [a] really tight group,” Farrar wrote. “Obviously ask everyone to keep in total confidence.”

The Teleconference

A "secret" Saturday conference call was organized by Jeremy Farrar with over a dozen scientists and government officials from around the world, to discuss that COVID-19 could have leaked from a research lab in Wuhan, and that the virus could have been genetically manipulated.

The document discussed at this call indicates the following concerns from the group:

  • the similarity between RaTG13 and SARS-CoV-2
  • a high level of mutations around key residues in the receptor binding domain
  • the furin cleavage site and its absence in SARS and other bat coronaviruses
  • a restriction site commonly used in genetic engineering called BamHI located strategically at the end of the coronavirus’ spike; and the observation that “a ‘gain of function’ in spike reverts to SARS sequence in RBD.”

For Farrar and Fauci, the goal of the call the subsequent publication of proximal origin was to "get ahead of the science and the narrative of this." Farrar described the frenzy and panic preceding the publication of proximal origin. “Just a few of us – Eddie, Kristian, Tony and I – were now privy to sensitive information that, if proved to be true, might set off a whole series of events that would be far bigger than any of us. It felt as if a storm was gathering,” he said. (FOIA'd email)

“The conference call finished and the conclusion was that we should write something up, a sort of summary statement,” Holmes said.

February 2, 2020

The virologists exchanged thoughts on the origin, with several leaned toward a lab origin, including three proximal origin authors: Anderson, Holmes, and Garry, . Garry said he cannot understand how SARS-CoV-2 could have emerged naturally after comparing it to RaTG13. The scientists express concerns about work with coronaviruses being done in Wuhan in BSL-2 conditions. “Wild west,” said Farrar.

Farrar emphasized the importance of publishing something quickly to counteract “lurid” claims emerging about a lab origin.

February 4, 2020

Edward Holmes emails the first draft of proximal origin to Jeremy Farrar with the comment: "It's fundamental science and completely neutral as written. Did not mention other anomalies ads this will make us look like loons."

Farrar emails the deraft to Fauci and Collins with the note: "Please treat in confidence - a very rough first draft from Eddie and team - they will send on the edited, cleaner version later. Pushing WHO again today."

The early draft states that furin cleavage sites can arise in betacoronaviruses in the lab through serial passage. The citation: A call in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It’s not precisely clear who stated that betacoronaviruses could acquire a furin cleavage site in serial passage, but Andersen was one of just eight experts tapped by NASEM. Two of the other experts were EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak and University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric.

Thus the early draft described serial passage in the lab as one of the ways the furin cleavage site might have arisen. “Basic research involving passage of bat SARS-like coronaviruses in tissue culture and/or animal models have been ongoing in BSL-2 for many years across the world, including in Wuhan,” the draft reads.

Andersen encouraged the NASEM to dispel the idea of an engineered virus.“Reading through the letter I think it’s great, but I do wonder if we need to be more firm on the question of engineering,” he wrote. Andersen previewed the argument that would become a central premise of “proximal origin.”

“The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to this virus being engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case. Engineering can mean many things and could be done for either basic research or nefarious reasons, but the data conclusively show that neither was done (if in the nefarious scenario somebody would have used a SARS/MERS backbone and optimal ACE2 binding as previously described, and for the basic research scenario would have used one of the many already available reverse genetic systems),” he wrote.

“If one of the main purposes of this document is to counter those fringe theories, I think it’s very important that we do so strongly and in plain language (“consistent with [natural evolution] is a favorite of mine when talking to scientists, but not when talking to the public – especially conspiracy theorists),” he wrote.

February 8, 2020

Andersen clarified to the group that his intention was to push back on lab origin theories, but that there was not enough evidence.

“Our main work over the past couple of weeks has been to disprove any type of lab theory, but we are at a crossroad where the scientific evidence isn’t conclusive enough to say that we have high confidence in any of the three main theories considered,” he wrote.

February 12, 2020

Even before the draft is complete, Andersen emails Clare Thomas, who handles virology papers at Nature, according to the masthead. Andersen introduces the article as reubutting “speculation, fear mongering, and conspiracies.”

“There has been a lot of speculation, fear mongering, and conspiracies put forward in this space and we thought that bringing some clarity to this discussion might be of interest to Nature.”

Andersen invokes the names of Jeremy Farrar, Tony Fauci, and Francis Collins, in an apparent effort to impress the journal and underscore the urgency.

February 17, 2020

Minutes before the preprint publishes, Farrar makes one last edit to the manuscript:

Sorry to micro-manage/microedit!

But would you be willing to change one sentence?

From -- It is unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of an existing SARS-related coronavirus

To -- It is improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of an existing SARS-related coronavirus


The correspondence is published as a preprint on

February 19, 2020

A letter in The Lancet to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin” includes Farrar as a signatory.

EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak organized the letter but purposefully omitted EcoHealth’s partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the name of University of North Carolina virologist Ralph Baric, a coronavirus engineering expert who works with EcoHealth and the lab, in order to feign impartiality. The letter publicly called upon the WHO to play a role in curbing the lab leak theory.

Publication Battle

Chinese CDC vs Western Virologists

On February 25, 2022, a preprint was uploaded to the preprint server Research Square by a team from the Chinese CDC, including former CCDC Director George Gao, entitled "Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in the environment and animal samples of the Huanan Seafood Market."

Gao and his team found that in in samples collected from the environment and animals within the market in early 2020, SARS-CoV-2 was detected in environmental samples. "The viruses from the market shared nucleotide identity of 99.98% to 99.99% with the human isolate HCoV/Wuhan/IVDC-HB-01. In contrast, no virus was detected in the animal swabs covering 18 species of animals in the market."

This preprint was uploaded in February 2022 in anticipation of peer review at Nature.

The very next day, on February 26, 2022, a preprint was uploaded to the preprint server Zendoo by a number of virologists, including Michael Worobey, Alexander Crits-Christoph, Jonathan Pekar, Angela Rasmussen, Marion Koopmans, Robert Garry, Edward Holmes, Andrew Rambaut, and Kristian Andersen, entitled "The Huanan market was the epicenter of SARS-CoV-2 emergence".

This team of virologists concluded that "together, these analyses provide dispositive evidence for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 via the wildlife trade and identify the Huanan Seafood Market as the unambiguous epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic."

In July 2022 the article "The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic" by Woroby, et. al was published in Science with some notable changes, including the removal of the terms dispositive and unambiguous from their conclusions.

As the Gao, et. al manuscript was completing peer review at Nature in early 2023, after being held up for almost a year, a story ran in The Atlantic entitled "The Strongest Evidence Yet that an Animal Started the Pandemic" on March 16, 2023, which a team of scientists (including many of the same names that were involved in the Proximal Origins paper and the Seafood Market paper) just by pure happenstance came across the Gao team data on GISAID and ran their own analysis and subsequently presented their data to the WHO's SAGO committee which came to the conclusion that it was raccoon dogs that started the pandemic.

On April 5, 2023 the Nature article by Gao and his team at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), "Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 at the Huanan Seafood Market" was finally published. They concluded:

Another report hypothesized that SARS-CoV-2 spilled over from animals to humans at least twice in November or December 2019, and the raccoon dog was hypothesized to be the intermediate host animal. The evidence provided in this study is not sufficient to support such a hypothesis.

Our study confirmed the existence of raccoon dogs, and other hypothesized/potential SARS-CoV-2 susceptible animals, at the market, prior to its closure. However, these environmental samples cannot prove that the animals were infected.

Furthermore, even if the animals were infected, our study does not rule out that human-to-animal transmission occurred, considering the sampling time was after the human infection within the market as reported retrospectively. Thus, the possibility of potential introduction of the virus to the market through infected humans, or cold chain products, cannot be ruled out yet.