Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday distanced himself from a 2020 email thanking him for emphasizing the likely natural origins for the COVID-19 virus over the theory that it escaped from a Chinese lab, as Republicans pressed the National Institutes of Health over what they said were the many unanswered questions about the pathogen that devastated the globe.
An executive at EcoHealth Alliance, a federal grantee that funded some research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, offered Dr. Fauci a “personal thank you” in April 2020 for saying the science pointed to a natural origin instead of a lab release. The Wuhan facility is the site of mounting interest as a possible source of the coronavirus.
One of the thousands of emails given to news outlets through freedom of information requests led to accusations that Dr. Fauci was too cozy with the Wuhan lab at the epicenter of investigations into how the virus swept across the central Chinese city before blanketing the world.
“That’s nonsense,” Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Thursday. “I don’t even see how they get that from that email.”
The doctor said the email was sent to him, not the other way around, and that an animal remains the most likely source of the pandemic, even if he’s now open to the idea that it leaked from a Chinese lab.
“I still believe the most likely origin is from an animal species to a human, but I keep an absolutely open mind that if there may be other origins of that, there may be another reason, it could have been a lab leak,” he told CNN.
In an email on April 16, 2020, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told Dr. Fauci: “Conspiracy theory gains momentum.” He was referring to the lab-leak theory, but the message is largely redacted.
Dr. Fauci said he doesn’t remember the substance of that email because it is among thousands of messages released to news outlets. He also said the idea that China viewed the virus as a bioweapon is outlandish.
“I don’t remember what’s in that redacted, but the idea, I think, is quite far-fetched that the Chinese deliberately engineered something so that they could kill themselves as well as other people. I think that’s a bit far out,” he told CNN.
Dr. Fauci has been a leading figure in fighting the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., but he angered conservatives after President Trump accused him of doling out shifting advice on masks and other topics as the science evolved in early 2020.
Critics of the doctor, now a medical adviser to President Biden, are crowing over nuggets in the emails given to The Washington Post and BuzzFeed and his willingness to consider the lab-leak theory once derided by many scientists and major news outlets. Republican lawmakers suggested a possible lab leak long ago while Mr. Trump reminded voters where the virus originated.
Mr. Trump reprised his grievances with Dr. Fauci in a statement Thursday, including the doctor’s conservative estimate of how long it would take to manufacture a vaccine. He stressed that grant research in Wuhan began before he took office and called for an investigation into what the U.S. knew about any manipulation of the virus.
“The funding of Wuhan by the U.S. was foolishly started by the Obama administration in 2014 but ended under the Trump administration. When I heard about it, I said ‘no way.’ What did Dr. Fauci know about ‘gain of function’ research, and when did he know it?” Mr. Trump, who is banned from Twitter, said in a formal statement.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and other Republicans were pilloried as conspiracy theorists in 2020 for pointing to the Wuhan lab, but Dr. Fauci and Mr. Biden recently ordered the intelligence community to conduct a 90-day review of the origin of the virus.
Mr. Biden said he found an earlier investigation unsatisfactory and put the onus on Mr. Trump. He said his predecessor was too deferential to Chinese President Xi Jinping as he pursued a bilateral trade deal in the early days of the pandemic.
Capitol Hill Republicans, meanwhile, are demanding an investigation into U.S. support of the Wuhan lab that was filtered through EcoHealth Alliance funding.
“We renew our request that you immediately convene hearings to examine the origins of COVID-19, the possibility that it leaked from a [communist China]-controlled laboratory, and any involvement of U.S. taxpayer funds,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican and ranking member on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, and Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the ranking member on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, wrote to House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat. “It is now imperative that Dr. Fauci come before our committees to provide information related to the origins of the novel coronavirus as well as the U.S. government’s role in funding research that may have contributed to the development of the novel coronavirus.”
They also said they want to see unredacted versions of Dr. Fauci‘s emails.
Dr. Collins defended the grant in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt this week. He said the Wuhan lab’s share was a “tiny fraction” of funding given to EcoHealth.
“We require annual reports to see whether that, in fact, is what they have been doing. And we trust the grantee to be honest and not deceptive. The grant funds that went to Wuhan, which were a subcontract from EcoHealth, were very specifically aimed to try to categorize viruses that they could isolate from bats in Chinese caves, which we had a good reason to want to know more about, given SARS [in 2003] and MERS that had come out of there,” he told Mr. Hewitt. “We had no control over what else they were doing with those funds. That’s another thing we’d like to know more about, and an investigation might potentially tell us.”
Others have accused Dr. Fauci of flip-flopping after telling National Geographic last year that he saw no evidence of a lab release of the virus.
“I believe if you look historically, what happens in the animal-human interface, that in fact the more likelihood is that you’re dealing with a jump of species,” Dr. Fauci said Thursday. “But I keep an open mind all the time. And that’s the reason why I have been public that we should continue to look for the origin.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state said late Wednesday that Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee plan to press Dr. Fauci and the NIH for more answers.
“We must learn how the COVID-19 pandemic started and where it came from so that we can respond and be prepared for the world’s next pandemic,” Ms. Rodgers said. “NIH must be more forthcoming with information they currently have.”
Ms. Rodgers highlighted a message from immunology and microbiology expert Kristian Andersen, who wrote to Dr. Fauci in January 2020 saying the virus “looked engineered” and was “inconsistent with expectations from the evolutionary theory.”
But by March 2020, Dr. Andersen and his colleagues wrote in Nature Medicine: “Our analyses clearly show that [COVID-19] is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
“As I have said many times, we seriously considered a lab leak a possibility. However, significant new data, extensive analyses, and many discussions led to the conclusions in our paper,” Dr. Andersen tweeted Tuesday. “What the email [to Dr. Fauci] shows is a clear example of the scientific process.”
White House officials expressed support of Dr. Fauci on Thursday and said they would let him speak about his emails.
“He’s been an undeniable asset in our country’s pandemic response,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.