Amid the search for the origins of COVID-19, two of the Biden administration’s top doctors, Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci, are adamant the National Institutes of Health did not fund so-called gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
But both men, the respective leaders of the NIH and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also admit they don’t actually know what the secretive Chinese lab at the center of COVID speculation has been up to.
On Tuesday, during a heated exchange with Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, Fauci denied that NIH had funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. Paul pointed to NIH grants going to Peter Daszak’s New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, which then provided some of that funding to the Wuhan lab, which a Trump State Department fact sheet contended carried out secretive gain-of-function experiments and worked with China’s military.
Gain-of-function research is defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as research “that improves the ability of a pathogen to cause disease” in an effort to “enable assessment of the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents.” It warns that these studies “may entail biosafety and biosecurity risks.”
EcoHealth Alliance has received at least $3.7 million from 2014 to 2020, and Daszak, a member of a controversial WHO-China study team into the origins of COVID-19, steered at least $600,000 in NIH funding to the Wuhan lab for bat coronavirus research.
Daszak criticized the United States for appearing skeptical of the WHO’s findings and defended China to Communist Party-linked outlets. U.S. Embassy officials in China raised concerns in 2018 about lax biosecurity at the Wuhan lab led by Shi Zhengli, dubbed “bat lady,” who worked closely with Daszak.
Paul asked if Fauci still supported sending money to the Wuhan lab, to which the Biden health adviser replied: “We do not send money now to the Wuhan virology institute.”
When pressed again, Fauci said: “The SARS-CoV-1 originated in bats in China. It would’ve been irresponsible of us if we did not investigate the bat viruses and serology to see who might have been infected in China.”
Paul also asked Fauci: “Will you in front of this group categorically say that COVID-19 could not have occurred through serial passage in a laboratory?”
Fauci said: “I do not have an accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I am fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China. However, I will repeat again — the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
A State Department fact sheet released in mid-January contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
Officials from both the Trump and Biden administrations have said the Chinese government worked for over a year to thwart an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, and both administrations cast doubt on the manner in which the WHO-China study was conducted earlier this year. Though the WHO-China report said a jump from animals to humans was most likely, Trump officials pointed to an accidental escape from the Wuhan lab as a highly plausible origin for the pandemic.
Shi denied her lab has been conducting research with the Chinese military during an online presentation for Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in March. During the presentation, she thanked Daszak and NIH.
During the early days of COVID-19, Shi told Scientific American that she originally asked herself, “Could they have come from our lab?” But she later told Chinese state television, “there could not possibly have been a lab leak.”
Peter Ben Embarek, head of the WHO group that investigated the coronavirus's origins, said in late February that “we don’t really have hard facts or detailed data on the work done” at the Wuhan lab.
Paul also pointed to Dr. Ralph Baric at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill allegedly “collaborating” with Shi on experiments related to the original SARS virus years ago.
Paul asked: “Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?”
Fauci replied: “With all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect — that the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
He added: “Dr. Baric is not doing gain-of-function research, and if it is, it is according to the guidelines, and it is being conducted in North Carolina, not in China.”
Paul then argued, “At least two scientists have signed a statement from the Cambridge Working Group saying that it is gain-of-function.”
Mark Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist, tweeted in response: “I and many other Cambridge Working Group support proper investigation of SARS-CoV-2 origins including the lab leak hypothesis and continue to oppose many forms of GOF research, but it is just fabrication to say we have made any statement as a group about work in Wuhan.”
An article in Nature Medicine published in 2015 following a study by Baric, Shi, and others discussed studies on Chinese horseshoe bat populations and said, “We generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014.” The scientists said that “our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.”
An “editor’s note” added to the article in March 2020 claimed, “We are aware that this article is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered.”
Baric was among the many scientists who signed a letter in Science magazine this week arguing that “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”
Paul contended that Fauci was “allowing super viruses to be created.”
“I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from, but again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Fauci said.
In a separate exchange with Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, Fauci was asked if he had a conflict of interest but denied it, saying: “No, I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest. We’re very open and wanting to make sure that everything that has any question is looked into.”
Marshall asked: “Is there national security implications with something as theoretically lethal as viral gain-of-function?”
“Sure there is. That’s why we have committees. We have our P3CO Committee — which is the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight, and that’s a committee separate from the NIH that looks at these types of grants to see if they need to be funded. So there is a considerable amount of oversight to make sure grants that are doing research that would obviously be of danger is not performed.”
Marshall then asked, “So when you made the decision to stop the moratorium on gain-of-function, were there national security advisers in the room?”
“First of all, I did not make the decision to stop the pause on gain-of-function,” Fauci said. “If one looks at what actually happened, we put a pause on, and I was the one who was very much in favor of that pause … from 2014 to 2017. The pause was lifted because we established a committee that looked at what we called P3CO.”
After a pause in 2014, HHS announced the creation of the P3CO Framework in 2017, which was ostensibly set up to review any potential grants that might involve gain-of-function research, but the 2019 renewal of the EcoHealth Alliance grants were not subjected to the P3CO review.
Marshall also asked, “If COVID-19 is indeed a product of lab manipulation, can you sit here and unequivocally say the viral studies that NIH funded, helped funded, could not be indirectly or direct related to this final COVID-19 virus?”
Fauci replied, “Looking at the experiments that were done that we funded, there would not be that possibility.”
The Republican senator then asked if it was possible that “some of the funding, indirectly, ended up to the contribution of COVID-19,” and Fauci grew defensive, saying, “I’m not sure exactly where that question is going. I mean, you could do research on something as benign as looking at something that has nothing to do with it, and it could indirectly, someday, somehow, be involved. So if you want to trap me into saying yes or no, I’m not going to play that game.”
Collins meanwhile spoke with conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday, where he denied that HHS had funded coronavirus-related gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab.
“There has been a lot of noise about this, and a lot of the information is not accurate,” Collins said. “Basically, this is the kind of research where you’re studying a particular pathogen in a very tightly controlled environment to try to understand what about that virus or that bacterium might we most want to be worried about that nature might develop into an even more dangerous organism.”
“Let me say categorically, NIH would not have supported any such research on coronaviruses because there are risks there that you might actually end up producing a virus that has a higher danger attached to it than what nature has already come up with … We have in the United States a rigorous system for overseeing any kind of gain-of-function research like that.”
Collins added: “Now, there’s a buzz that maybe that Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting that kind of research.”
But he said: “There’s no evidence for that.”
Hewitt asked if the NIH leader could categorically deny that the U.S. had funded any gain-of-function research at the Chinese lab.
“We, of course, do not have internal insight as to what was going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. NIH strongly supports the position that we need a more thorough investigation of what exactly were the origins of this virus,” Collins said, adding that “we absolutely did not fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan.”
Nicholas Wade, who spent three decades as a science writer for the New York Times, wrote an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in early May in which he contended, “It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged.”
In 2017, Daszak, Shi, and other Chinese scientists published a paper titled “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.” The article said its study “offers a clearer picture on the evolutionary origin of SARS-CoV and highlights the risk of future emergence of SARS-like diseases.” Daszak and Shi said the work was “jointly funded” by groups such as the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the NIH — directly citing the NIAID grant received by EcoHealth Alliance.
An NIH spokesperson told the Washington Examiner in February that the Wuhan lab “is not an NIH grantee” but instead that EcoHealth Alliance “is the recipient of an NIH grant” and “made a subaward” to the Chinese laboratory. NIH said it “does not participate in establishing the terms of the subaward” and that “the grantee organization is directly accountable for the performance of the project, appropriate expenditure of grant funds by all parties, and all other obligations specified in the terms of award.”
NIH contended earlier this year that “the research by EcoHealth Alliance that NIH funded was for a project that aimed to characterize at the molecular level the function of newly discovered bat spike proteins and naturally occurring pathogens” and that “molecular characterization examines functions of an organism at the molecular level, in this case a virus and a spike protein, without affecting the environment or development or physiological state of the organism.” The agency said that “NIAID determined the research in the grant was not gain-of-function research because it did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied,” and so NIH concluded that “the research was not subject to either the Gain-of-Function Research Funding Pause” in 2014, nor was the grant subjected to NIH’s P3CO Framework implemented in 2017.
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, told the Washington Examiner last year that COVID-19 arising in nature or escaping through a lab accident were both plausible.
Ebright told Independent Science News in March that Fauci and Collins “have systematically thwarted efforts by the White House, the Congress, scientists, and science policy specialists to regulate gain-of-function research of concern and even to require risk-benefit review for projects involving gain-of-function research of concern.” He pointed to a footnote in the HHS gain-of-function pause announcement, which said that “an exception from the research pause may be obtained if the head of the USG funding agency determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.”
Ebright told the outlet: “Unfortunately, the NIAID Director and the NIH Director exploited this loophole to issue exemptions to projects subject to the pause — preposterously asserting the exempted research was ‘urgently necessary to protect public health or national security’ — thereby nullifying the pause.”
He also said: “The NIAID Director and the NIH Director have declined to flag and forward proposals for risk-benefit review, thereby nullifying the P3CO Framework.”
Ebright told the Washington Examiner this week that grants provided by NIH to EcoHealth Alliance met the definition for “gain-of-function research of concern” under the 2014 pause and the definition for “potential pandemic pathogen enhancement” under the P3CO Framework. Ebright also noted that the research “was published with an acknowledgment” of the NIH grant. The professor concluded that “the Wuhan lab used NIH funding to construct novel chimeric SARS-related coronavirus with the ability to infect human cells and laboratory animals” and that “the research was — unequivocally — gain of function research.”
When asked why the Wuhan lab has not been permanently banned from receiving U.S. funding either directly or indirectly, NIH said earlier this year that “NIH does not have the authority to debar institutions from receiving federal funds” and that “to date, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has not been debarred from receiving federal funds.” HHS has not responded to repeated questions from the Washington Examiner about this and other related issues.
NIH also said the grant to EcoHealth Alliance was “terminated” on April 24, 2020, but “reinstated” on July 8, 2020.
“However, all activities related to the grant were immediately suspended until EcoHealth Alliance provides information and documentation demonstrating that EcoHealth Alliance and WIV have satisfied concerns NIH has about non-compliance with requirements outlined in the terms and conditions of award,” it added.
NIH said that the Chinese lab “is not presently a subawardee on an NIH grant.” But the Wuhan lab still maintains a Foreign Assurance with NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. NIH told the Washington Examiner that “an Assurance does not determine whether an organization can or will receive a grant,” though it means the Wuhan lab is allegedly in compliance with NIH’s policy on using lab animals.
A number of congressional Republicans are pushing the Biden administration to declassify U.S. intelligence on the Wuhan lab.
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