Anthony Fauci seemed aware of the looming gain-of-function and Chinese collaboration controversies related to National Institutes of Health funding and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, new emails from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic reveal.
Fauci was challenged by Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, on two issues. First, Dr. Ralph Baric at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill allegedly collaborated with the Wuhan lab’s top scientist, Shi Zhengli, also dubbed the “bat lady,” on experiments related to the original SARS virus years ago. Second, NIH grants went 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 gain-of-function experiments and secretive collaboration with China’s military.
More than a year prior, however, Fauci sent an email to NIH Principal Deputy Director Hugh Auchincloss on Feb. 1, 2020, with an attachment labeled “Baric, Shi et al – Nature medicine – SARS Gain of function.pdf” and the subject line, “IMPORTANT.” Fauci’s message had a tone of urgency, saying, “Hugh: It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on. I have a conference call at 7:45 AM with [Health and Human Services Secretary Alex] Azar. It likely will be over at 8:45 AM. Read this paper as well as the e-mail that I will forward to you now. You will have tasks today that must be done. Thanks, Tony.” Fauci sent the same attachment to Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director and deputy ethics counselor at NIH, with the subject line “FW: IMPORTANT” and the message, “Here it is.”
Auchincloss replied to Fauci later that day, saying, “The paper you sent me says the experiments were performed before the gain of function pause but have since been reviewed and approved by NIH. Not sure what that means since Emily is sure that no Coronavirus work [has] gone through the P3 framework.” Although “Emily” is not identified, Emily Erbelding, director of the NIH’s division of microbiology and infectious diseases, is mentioned in over five dozen Fauci emails. Auchincloss continued: “She will try to determine if we have any distant ties to this work abroad.” Fauci replied, “OK. Stay tuned.”
After a pause in 2014, HHS announced the creation of the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight 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 grants was not subjected to the P3CO review.
During a Senate hearing on the coronavirus, Paul pointed to the work between Baric and Shi as evidence of U.S. support for gain-of-function research in China and asked, “Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?”
Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, replied: “Sen. Paul, 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.”
An article in Nature Medicine published in 2015 following a study by Baric, Shi, and others noted that “the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV underscores the threat of cross-species transmission events leading to outbreaks in humans.”
The paper added: “Using the SARS-CoV reverse genetics system, we generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 … The results indicate that group 2b viruses encoding the SHC014 spike in a wild-type backbone can … replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells and achieve in vitro titers equivalent to epidemic strains of SARS-CoV.” 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. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.”
Baric was among the scientists who signed a letter in Science magazine last month arguing that “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”
EcoHealth has received at least $3.7 million from 2014 to 2020, and Daszak, who was a key member of the World Health Organization-China joint study team, steered at least $600,000 in NIH funding to the Wuhan lab for bat coronavirus research, criticizing the Biden administration earlier this year for appearing skeptical of the WHO’s findings and defending China to Chinese Communist Party-linked outlets. U.S. Embassy officials in China raised concerns in 2018 about lax biosecurity at the Wuhan lab led by Shi, who had worked with EcoHealth and Daszak.
Paul referred to “government scientists like yourself who support gain-of-function research” before Fauci interrupted him.
“I don’t support gain-of-function research in China,” Fauci said. “You’re saying things that are not correct.”
Paul 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.”
Fauci testified last week that it would have been “almost a dereliction of our duty” if the NIH had not worked with China to study coronaviruses as he defended NIH money going to fund “collaboration” with “very respectable Chinese scientists.”
A State Department fact sheet released in 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.” The fact sheet added that the lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military.”
The NIH told the Washington Examiner earlier this year that the Wuhan lab is not an NIH grantee but that EcoHealth received NIH grants and then provided a subaward to the Wuhan lab.
“The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases 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,” the NIH said.
Fauci previously laughed off the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a lab, arguing that “a number of very qualified evolutionary biologists have said that everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that it evolved in nature and then jumped species.” A Washington Examiner review shows he worked behind the scenes in early 2020 to cast doubt on the lab leak hypothesis.
Last month, however, Fauci said he was unsure about whether he was still confident that COVID-19 emerged naturally.
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 said in May that grants provided by the NIH to EcoHealth met the definition of “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.”