However, conversations between public officials seem to indicate that some experts may have consciously chosen to suppress evidence that could fuel "conspiracists."
"I really can't think of a plausible natural scenario where you get from the bat virus ... to nCoV where you insert exactly four amino acids 12 nucleotide that all have to be added at the exact same time to gain this function," Dr. Robert Garry from Tulane's School of Medicine said, according to notes from a February 2020 meeting released by House Republicans.
"I just can't figure out how this gets accomplished in nature," Garry added in his group comments at the time. "Don't mention a lab origin, as that will just add fuel to the conspiracists."
Now, fresh questions are being raised about what American scientists and federal health officials knew about the origins of the coronavirus and whether conflicting evidence was suppressed and hidden from the public.
"NO one said that - I certainly never believed that. At that time of the teleconference we'd been looking all the options - all were on the table including a lab origin. The simple boring fact is we got new data and our opinions changed - that is the lab origin looked progressively less likely," Garry told Fox News in an exclusive statement. "The insinuation that we were somehow bought off with a large NIH grant is absurd - that grant was written and peer-reviewed before anyone had heard of SARS-CoV-2."
White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci was warned as early as Jan. 27, 2020, that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) he oversaw was indirectly linked to the infamous Wuhan lab through EcoHealth, a U.S.-based scientific nonprofit that had been working with novel coronaviruses.
NIAID Principal Deputy Director Hugh Auchinloss floated the idea to Fauci that the research partially tied to the U.S. government may not have gone through the appropriate biosafety evaluations, saying that he will "try to determine if we have any distant ties" to the facility.
Dr. Kristian Anderson, a prominent virologist at the Scripps lab, told Fauci Jan. 31 2020, that "the genome is inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory," an observation that points to synthetic manufacturing.
After Fauci was already made aware of Anderson's observations, a conference call with dozens of expert virologists around the world was organized.
Contacted by Fox News, Anderson denied any influence on his perception of the virus, saying that
"No, I do not believe that origin theories were obscured, censored, or suppressed, although the question has become heavily politicized by lab leak proponents," Anderson told Fox. "Our scientific investigations - published in peer-reviewed scientific journals - have only been driven by scientific enquiry. Any suggestions to the contrary are false."
Dr. Mike Farzan, another researcher at the Scripps lab, expressed doubts about the virus's origins in nature at the time as well. However, Fauci and others in the meeting pointed to evidence that the virus originated in a seafood and wild animal market in Wuhan.
Investigation into the food hypothesis was complicated by the suspected market being shut down and scrubbed clean by Chinese authorities before a full analysis could be performed.
By the end of the meeting, then-National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins had tentatively sided with the natural causation theory, stating that an emphasis on blame for the outbreak could threaten "international harmony."
"I am coming around to the view that a natural origin is more likely," Collins wrote at the time. "But I share your view that a swift convening of experts in a confidence inspiring framework (WHO seems really the only option) is needed, or the voices of conspiracy will quickly dominate."
"Most all of the lab leak scenarios involve a conspiracy and a cover-up by scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. If you believe in the only - highly unlikely - lab leak scenario that's not a conspiracy - an accidental release of a virus that WIV didn't know they had - then you still have to explain how most of the early cases ended up linked to markets selling wild animals," Garry told Fox News.
Just four days later, five researchers who were on the call authored preliminary findings abandoning their early private beliefs that the virus was likely the result of a lab leak. The March 17, 2020, article published in Nature Medicine stated, "Our analysis clearly shows that [COVID] is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus."
The concerns and questionable evidence originally debated by experts just months earlier were not just dismissed but went completely unacknowledged in the article's analysis. It is unclear what new evidence prompted the reversal of opinion, but private communications show that various drafts were sent to Fauci and Collins for approval.
Individuals within the federal government continued to consciously suppress accusations of human involvement with the COVID-19 outbreak despite the standing evidence against such a theory.
After then-President Trump said he would not discount the theory that the virus spread from a Chinese wet market due to unsafe hygiene practices, Collins wrote to Fauci, "Wondering is there something NIH can do to put down this very destructive conspiracy."
"I would not do anything about this right now. It is a shiny object that will go away in time," Fauci assured Collins.
At an April 17 press conference, Fauci assured the public that the makeup of COVID-19 was in line with what could be expected from a natural virus.
All the way up until his last days in office, Collins continued to focus on natural explanations of the pandemic.
In an interview near the end of his time at the head of the NIH, Collins did not outright deny any possibility of human influence on the virus, but he stopped short of entertaining the idea COVID-19 was made from the ground up.
"I don't think I have any more new information to be able to tip the balance," he said. "Certainly possible that this was somehow under study in the lab even though it was not human engineered from scratch, I am quite confident of that."
Collins stood by the natural cause hypothesis through the rest of his time in his position.
On the guidance of world virology experts, Facebook actively suppressed reporting on the lab leak theory, utilizing "false information" warnings and listing relevant investigations as "debunked" until May 2021.
"We are proud to introduce the 2022 Portrait of a Nation Honorees who embody creativity, individuality, excellence, and service to the people of our country," the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery said in a statement revealing that Fauci, along with six others will be honored at a November gala to "celebrate seven remarkable individuals for their transformational impact on the nation’s history, development, and culture."
Fox News's Andrew Mark Miller contributed to this report.
This report has been edited to include the statements of Dr. Anderson and Dr. Garry.