Coronavirus

Anthony Fauci Gives Misleading, Evasive Answers About NIH-Funded Research at Wuhan Lab

At yesterday's congressional hearing, the former NIAID director played word games and shifted blame in an effort to dismiss credible claims that his agency funded work that caused the pandemic.

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In a now-infamous 2021 exchange with Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), Anthony Fauci—the former longtime head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and former chief medical advisor to the president—said that the National Institutes of Health (which oversees NIAID) "has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology."

We now know this is not true.

A treasure trove of documents uncovered by congressional investigators and dogged investigative journalists has established that the NIAID was funding gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Lab via a grant to the scandal-plagued nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance (which the Biden administration just debarred from receiving federal funding).

These revelations lead to the inescapable conclusion that Fauci was being misleading at best (and dishonest at worst) about the NIH-funded research at Wuhan. It also has fueled eminently reasonable speculation that that research precipitated a lab leak at Wuhan which caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his testimony yesterday at a hearing of the House Oversight Committee's Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, Fauci attempted to push back on both notions.

While the NIH-funded research by EcoHealth at the Wuhan lab met the generic definition of gain-of-function research, it did not meet the narrower federal regulatory definition of dangerous gain-of-function research aimed at enhancing potential pandemic pathogens, said Fauci.

"Every time I have mentioned gain-of-function—at the Senate hearing with Senator Paul, at the [transcribed interview with the Coronavirus Subcommittee in January], and today—the definition that I use is not my personal definition, it is a codified, regulatory and operative definition" found in the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) 2017 Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens (P3CO) that regulates potentially pandemic-causing research, said Fauci.

Therefore, Fauci stressed, he was not being dishonest by saying that NIH had not funded this specific type of regulated gain-of-function research.

Moreover, while that NIH-funded research might meet the more generic definition of gain-of-function (that is, research that enhances the properties of a virus), such research could not have created SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), argued Fauci.

"It would be molecularly impossible" for the viruses that EcoHealth and Wuhan researchers were manipulating with NIH funding to have become the virus that caused the pandemic, he said.

Fauci's latest defense is evasive, misleading, and arguably downright dishonest for at least three reasons.

The first is that the P3CO framework is not the only relevant definition of gain-of-function research found in federal regulations. The second is that EcoHealth's work in Wuhan arguably did meet the definitions established by the P3CO framework. The third is that we don't know all the viruses that EcoHealth and Wuhan researchers were experimenting on with NIH funding.

Let's take these three reasons in turn.

To understand the first reason for why Fauci's testimony was misleading requires a little history. In 2014, EcoHealth received a five-year, $3.7 million grant from the NIAID to collect and analyze bat coronaviruses in China.

That same year, the Obama administration paused government funding of gain-of-function research, defined as research that could make flu, SARS, and MERS viruses transmissible via the respiratory route in mammals.

For Fauci to claim that EcoHealth wasn't performing research that met the P3CO framework's definition of gain-of-function research is irrelevant for the first three years of EcoHealth's grant because that framework wasn't in effect yet. The Obama administration's gain-of-function pause was.

And as it turns out, EcoHealth's work arguably should have fallen under this pause.

In 2016, EcoHealth reported to the NIAID that they planned on using viruses collected in the wild to create SARS-like "chimeric" or hybrid viruses that might be better able to infect human lung cells in genetically engineered (humanized) mice.

In response, NIAID told EcoHealth to stop its experiments because they likely violated the then-extant pause on gain-of-function research.

After some weeks of back-and-forth in 2016, NIH did eventually let EcoHealth continue with its research on the condition that it immediately stop its work and notify the agency if any of its hybrid viruses did show increased viral growth in humanized mice.

When these hybrid viruses did show increased viral growth in mice, EcoHealth did not immediately stop work or notify the NIH. It instead waited until it submitted an annual progress report in 2018 to disclose the results of its experiments.

By that time, the NIH was operating under the P3CO framework, which imposed new regulations on gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs).

This brings us to the second reason Fauci's testimony was misleading to the point of dishonesty: EcoHealth's work arguably did meet the definition for gain-of-function research laid out in the P3CO.

Under the P3CO framework, PPPs were defined as pathogens that were "likely highly transmissible" in human populations and "likely highly virulent" in humans.

The P3CO framework required that any proposed research that could be "reasonably anticipated" to create PPPs that had enhanced transmissibility or virulence be forwarded to the HHS for review and risk-benefit analysis.

As mentioned, EcoHealth was creating hybrid SARS-like viruses, using them to infect humanized mice, and finding that those hybrid viruses did have enhanced transmissibility and virulence compared to their natural cousins.

It's eminently reasonable to say, as virologists have, that the hybrid viruses EcoHealth was creating with NIH funding did in fact fall under the definition of an enhanced PPP set out in the P3CO framework. At a minimum, EcoHealth's experiments should have been forwarded to the HHS for review.

That didn't happen.

Indeed, a steady, mainstream criticism of the NIH prior to the pandemic was that it was interpreting definitions in P3CO policy so narrowly so as to not have to send any research up the chain to the HHS for review. In his testimony yesterday, Fauci continued this tradition of effectively defining gain-of-function research subject to P3CO out of existence.

In his testimony yesterday, Fauci also asserted that the entire inquiry into whether EcoHealth's research at Wuhan met this or that definition of gain-of-function was irrelevant to the inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. That's because the viruses they'd reported working on in Wuhan couldn't possibly have caused the pandemic because they are so dissimilar from SARS-CoV-2.

This brings us to the third way that Fauci's testimony was misleading in the extreme: We don't know all the viruses that Wuhan researchers were experimenting with.

As Harvard molecular biologist Alina Chan notes in a New York Times essay arguing COVID-19 "probably" started in a lab, the Wuhan lab EcoHealth partnered with has thousands of unpublished virus samples, and Chinese researchers have long been incredibly cagey about sharing all their virus samples with their American collaborators.

In 2018, EcoHealth had also proposed to engineer viruses at Wuhan with features "strikingly similar" to SARS-CoV-2, Chan notes. The Biden administration also cited EcoHealth's failure to monitor the work of its Chinese partners and report the results of its own experiments on time as the reason for debarring it from receiving federal funds.

When representatives asked Fauci yesterday whether Wuhan researchers might have performed experiments on these unpublished viruses that could have sparked the pandemic, his repeated response was that he couldn't comment on all the virological work being done across China.

At a minimum, that's an incredibly brazen exercise in blame shifting. By funding EcoHealth's virological work in Wuhan, Fauci's agency (and he, as director) had a responsibility to ensure the work being done there was being conducted safely and transparently.

Now, Fauci is baldly saying that he can't be expected to really know all of what's going on at a lab receiving U.S. taxpayer funding.

That's maddening all by itself. It also undermines Fauci's definitive statement that "the viruses that were funded by the NIH bio-genetically could not be the precursor to SARS-CoV-2." If Fauci doesn't know the full extent of the work the NIH funded, he can't say with certainty that it didn't spark a pandemic.

So in short, Fauci's latest position, repeated by congressional Democrats and his fans in the media, that a lab leak origin of COVID is possible but that it's still a conspiracy theory to say it resulted from NIH-funded research at Wuhan is as mendacious as his original word games with Sen. Paul.