At a U.S. Senate hearing earlier this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) accused Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of lying about research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) using funds provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Reminding Fauci that "it is a crime to lie Congress," Paul invited him to retract statements made at a May 2021 hearing "where you claimed that the NIH never funded gains-of-function research in Wuhan." Later in the hearing, Paul further asserted that Fauci was "trying to obscure responsibility for 4 million people dying around the world from a pandemic." Paul added, "All the evidence is pointing that it came from the lab, and there will be responsibility for those who funded the lab, including yourself."
After a testy exchange, Fauci retorted, "If anybody is lying here, senator, it is you."
What is not in dispute is that the NIH did provide $600,000 to the WIV, funneled through the EcoHealth Alliance research group, to study the risk that more bat-borne coronaviruses, like the 2003 outbreak of the SARS virus, would emerge in China. What is in contention is whether the NIH grant funded gain-of-function research at the WIV, and the entirely separate question of whether or not the COVID-19 coronavirus originated in that laboratory.
To unpack these more complicated questions, let's start by defining gain-of-function research. A 2014 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy memo defines gain-of-function studies as those that "aim to increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility." As evidence that the NIH had funded just such studies at the WIV, Paul cited a 2017 study in which WIV researchers reported recombining several bat coronaviruses to check how easily the modified viruses might be able to infect human cells. In their article, the Chinese researchers thanked the NIH for its support of the research.
Those Chinese researchers took the known WIV1 coronavirus, the spike proteins of which already give it the ability to infect human cells using the ACE2 receptor, and then replaced it with spike proteins from newly discovered bat coronaviruses. The goal was to see if the spike proteins from the novel coronaviruses would be sufficient to replace the function of the WIV1 spike protein. The researchers found that two versions of the WIV1 virus modified with the novel spike proteins could still use the ACE2 receptor to infect and replicate in human cells in culture.
Is this gain-of-function research? To some extent, this controversy is somewhat reminiscent of President Bill Clinton's notorious sophistic dodge, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
During the hearing, Paul cited statements from Richard Ebright, a long-time gain-of-function research critic and Rutgers University biologist, published by National Review back in May. "The Wuhan lab used NIH funding to construct novel chimeric SARS-related coronaviruses able to infect human cells and laboratory animals," Ebright said. "This is high-risk research that creates new potential pandemic pathogens (i.e., potential pandemic pathogens that exist only in a lab, not in nature). This research matches—indeed epitomizes—the definition of 'gain-of-function research of concern' for which federal funding was 'paused' in 2014-2017." At the hearing, Fauci responded to Paul's assertions that the 2017 study "you were referring to was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain of function."
In May, the NIH, in response to a query from the Washington Post's Fact Checker, issued a statement declaring that the agency "has never approved any grant to support 'gain-of-function' research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans. The research proposed in the EcoHealth Alliance, Inc., grant
application sought to understand how bat coronaviruses evolve naturally in
the environment to become transmissible to the human population."
Robert Garry, a Tulane University virologist pointed out to Newsweek that the Wuhan experiments were done to study whether the bat coronaviruses could infect humans. What they didn't do, he argued, was make the viruses "any better" at infecting people, which would be necessary for gain-of-function research. In other words, Garry does not think that the WIV research increased the virulence or transmissibility of the modified viruses.
On Twitter, King's College London virologist Stuart Neil observed that "the EcoHealth grant [from the NIH] was judged by the vetting committee to not involve GoF [gain of function] because the investigators were REPLACING a function in a virus that ALREADY HAD human tropism rather than giving a function to one that could not infect humans." Neil does acknowledge that "understandably this is a grey area." He goes on to argue, "But whether I or anyone thinks in retrospect that this is or is not GoF, the NIH did not, so in that respect Fauci is NOT lying."
Live Congressional testimony is not always coherent, but Paul seemed to be suggesting later in the hearing that the COVID-19 coronavirus could be a gain-of-function virus developed by the WIV that leaked from the institute's laboratories. Fauci responded, "I totally resent the lie that you are now propagating, senator, because if you look at the viruses that were used in the experiments that were given in the annual reports that were published in the literature, it is molecularly impossible." Fauci is right: One point on which all researchers do agree is that none of the viruses modified in the 2017 study could be the cause of the current pandemic. They are simply too genetically different to be the precursors of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
During their heated exchange, Paul backtracked a bit, "No one is saying that those viruses caused the pandemic. What we're alleging is the gain-of-function research was going on in that lab and NIH funded it." Neil observes that "all lab leak scenarios rest on the isolation and culture of either the immediate precursor of SARS-CoV-2 or the construction of a molecular clone from such a hitherto unidentified/undisclosed virus that could serve as a template for GoF experiments not covered by the NIH funding or required for its stated aims and thus far denied by the WIV and EcoHealth." That is as may be, but Paul seems to be asserting a different claim, which is that the NIH funded some of the research that ended up training scientists at the WIV on how to use gain-of-function techniques that would enable them to develop, either intentionally or inadvertently, more virulent and lethal strains of coronaviruses.
So who is lying? Both Paul and Fauci can cite experts who agree with their interpretations of what the NIH funded at the WIV. Consequently, both men can reasonably believe that they are each telling the truth while the other is a dishonest fraud.
It is worth noting that an international team of researchers posted earlier this month a preprint analysis that finds that most of the evidence strongly points to a natural spillover of the virus. Still, whether or not the pandemic coronavirus leaked from the WIV's labs is yet to be determined. The fact that the Chinese government has just rejected the World Health Organization's follow-up investigation into the origins of the virus will certainly and properly continue to fuel suspicions that it did.