It cannot be easy keeping confidences when your whole scientific career has been predicated on the transparent sharing of data. But this is the bind that Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust and a prominent government scientific adviser, found himself in on learning in January 2020 that Chinese scientists had isolated a novel coronavirus in Wuhan with an unusual constellation of genes.
Within days, Farrar, an infectious disease clinician by training, had obtained the virus’s genetic sequence and knew it was related to Sars, the cause of a major global outbreak in 2002-2003. And within weeks, Farrar knew it was being transmitted from person to person and had “the makings of a nightmare”. More concerning still, Sars-CoV-2, as the virus came to be known, “seemed almost designed to infect human cells”, raising the possibility it might have accidentally or deliberately escaped from a laboratory.
That revelation and the simultaneous realisation of its geopolitical implications thrusted Farrar into a twilight world of suspicion and moral conflict. “I would do things I had never done before: acquire a burner phone, hold clandestine meetings, keep difficult secrets… In hushed conversations, I sketched out the possibility of a looming global health crisis that had the potential to be read as bioterrorism.”
Thus begins Spike, Farrar’s riveting “inside story” of his efforts to warn the world of the looming pandemic and devise countermeasures, written with the help of the science journalist Anjana Ahuja. As the head of one of the world’s biggest philanthropic science funding bodies and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), Farrar – or Sir Jeremy as he has been known since his knighthood in 2019 – is uniquely placed to draw back the veil and take us into the Whitehall sanctums where doubts are discreetly aired by advisers and key decisions made.
Farrar doesn’t disappoint. Having spent the past 18 months keeping his counsel, Spike reads like a long-overdue political reckoning and settling of scientific scores. Appointing Dido Harding to run the UK’s test, trace and isolate system was a “grave error… I could not see what skills she brought to the role”, Farrar writes. On the question of who was responsible for the government’s initial, ill-conceived herd immunity strategy, he exonerates both Sage and Dominic Cummings, suggesting instead that the idea for Covid-style “chickenpox parties” came from within No 10 and the government’s behavioural insights team. Certainly, if chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who floated the herd immunity strategy in an interview with the BBC on 13 March 2020, had come to Sage and said: “Our plan is to take it on the chin”, Farrar insists “I would have resigned”. He is similarly scathing about last summer’s “eat out to help out” scheme, describing it as “a tinderbox” that lit the deadly second wave. Ditto the Oxford scientist Sunetra Gupta and other signatories of the Great Barrington declaration, whose proposal to allow the virus to sweep through the population while shielding elderly people Farrar dismisses as “ideology masquerading as science”.
Nor does Farrar seek to evade his own blindspots. Though he was not present at the Sage meetings in February 2020 when Chinese-style lockdowns were first mooted, he acknowledges that the idea you could tell the citizens of mature European democracies not to leave their homes was met with “disbelief, including from me”.
Farrar is similarly honest about his other biases and in a reflective passage on his initial willingness to entertain the laboratory conspiracy theory, he admits: “I had put two and two together and made five.” But perhaps the bigger surprise, given the fact that in February 2020 Farrar had lent his name to a controversial letter in the Lancet “strongly” condemning speculation about Covid’s non-natural origins, is that he entertained the theory at all (in a rare oversight, Farrar and Ahuja fail to mention the Lancet letter).
I suspect these passages will prove the most controversial, particularly given the Biden administration’s recent decision to reopen the lab leak investigation and the recent publication of a follow-up Lancet letter in which Farrar and other prominent scientists reaffirm their view that the weight of “credible”, peer-reviewed scientific evidence points to a natural origin.
Certainly, as a long-time Farrar watcher (disclosure: some of my research has been supported by the Wellcome Trust and I’ve also interviewed Farrar for my podcast), I was astonished to learn that a month before the publication of the first Lancet letter Farrar had scheduled a confidential call with Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to discuss the evidence for and against the lab leak theory, after which Farrar was still split 50-50. Equally astonishing is the revelation that he was so spooked by the possibility that the virus was human-made that he raised it with Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of M15 and a Wellcome trustee (it was Manningham-Buller who advised Farrar to get a burner phone and beef up his security). Indeed, the most compelling passages of Spike are where Farrar, skilfully aided by Ahuja, takes us through the complex scientific case for and against the lab leak theory, as he wrestles with his conscience and who he should let in on the secret lest something ill should befall him. John le Carré couldn’t have plotted it better.
Despite this, many readers may feel Farrar’s conclusion is a bit of a cop-out – without access to the laboratory records, he says, we may never be able to definitively rule out the lab leak theory “but the simplest explanation remains the likeliest: nature plus bad luck”. No less easy is the question whether Farrar would have done better to break ranks with Boris Johnson’s government earlier. “Does staying in an advisory role mean being complicit in the outcomes of bad decisions?” he asks at one point.
I believe Farrar when he says he still doesn’t know the answer, but after reading this searing indictment of the government’s serial failures to follow the science, I can’t be the only reader who wishes he’d written it sooner.
• Mark Honigsbaum is a medical historian and the author of The Pandemic Century: A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19
• Spike by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja is published by Profile (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply