In 2014, the Obama White House made what Science magazine called a “startling” announcement: It would halt all funding of so-called gain-of-function research — research that alters pathogens in laboratories to make them more deadly and transmissible — so experts could weigh the risks associated with the contentious practice. The decision came after several accidents at U.S. biocontainment labs.
That same year, the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, directed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, issued a $3.4 million grant to the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance to study bat coronaviruses through 2019. The nonprofit research organization, run by Peter Daszak, then sub-awarded China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology $750,000 to help with the contract — beyond the reach of U.S. regulators and oversight.
Scientists at the Wuhan Institute, as part of their research, were known to have mixed components of different coronaviruses, creating strains that don’t exist in nature and gauging how they might cross over to humans. In 2018, U.S. State Department officials cabled warnings back home about the serious management and safety concerns at the Wuhan lab while studying bat coronaviruses. Two years before that, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had urged the U.S. government to screen Wuhan Institute proposals more intensively for gain-of-function research that sparked “concern.”
Yet the leadership at NIAID appears to have turned a blind eye to the work being done by EcoHealth Alliance. According to a report from The Intercept, based on information released by the NIH after it was sued by the organization, the work being done by EcoHealth in China was eerily similar to the gain-of-function research that was forbidden in the U.S.
The scientists working under EcoHealth’s 2014 grant “twice submitted summaries of their work that showed that, when in the lungs of genetically engineered mice, three altered bat coronaviruses at times reproduced far more quickly than the original virus on which they were based,” The Intercept reported in 2021. “The altered viruses were also somewhat more pathogenic, with one causing the mice to lose significant weight. The researchers reported, ‘These results demonstrate varying pathogenicity of SARSr-CoVs with different spike proteins in humanized mice.’”
When the results were reported to NIH, it determined the gain-of-function research restrictions didn’t apply. It’s unclear whether Dr. Fauci himself was directly aware of EcoHealth’s work.
“What is clear is that program officers at NIAID, the agency that Fauci oversees, did know about the research,” The Intercept reported.
It’s also clear that Dr. Fauci did everything in his power early on to knock down speculation that the COVID-19 virus may have originated from a leak out of that very same lab in Wuhan, potentially sparking a pandemic blamed for millions of deaths around the world since it emerged at the end of 2019.
After COVID-19 was unleashed on the world, British researcher Kristian Andersen emailed Dr. Fauci on Jan. 31, 2020, arguing that “one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered,” adding that he and a number of colleagues “all find the genome inconsistent with evolutionary theory.”
On Feb. 1, Mr. Andersen and other scientists had a teleconference with Dr. Fauci to discuss the origins of the virus. Three days after that meeting, Mr. Andersen dramatically changed his position, announcing, “The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to this virus being somehow engineered … and that’s demonstrably false.”
Now, according to evidence obtained by the House Oversight Committee, it turns out that Dr. Fauci prompted the drafting of Mr. Andersen’s letter, which was published in the journal Nature in March 2020, dismissing the lab origin theory outright.
A month earlier, Mr. Andersen wrote an email to Nature to request publication of his letter titled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” explaining, “There has been a lot of speculation, fearmongering and conspiracies put forward in this space and we thought that bringing some clarity to this discussion might be of interest to Nature.”
He acknowledged then that the letter was written in part at the urging of Dr. Fauci and then-NIH Director Francis Collins. Dr. Fauci would subsequently cite that same letter several times to combat the lab leak theory in public interviews.
“There was a study recently … where a group of highly qualified evolutionary virologists looked at the sequences there and the sequences in bats as they evolve,” Dr. Fauci said on April 18 at a White House press briefing, rejecting the “conspiracy theory” that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese lab. “The mutations that it took to get to the point where it is now [are] totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.”
Before Mr. Andersen’s call with Dr. Fauci, his Scripps Research Translational Institute in California had been awarded $7.1 million in NIH funding. Since the call, the public statement and the letter, Scripps has received $23.7 million in NIH funding.
“I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” EcoHealth’s Mr. Daszak wrote to Dr. Fauci on April 18, 2020.
“From my perspective, your comments are brave, and coming from your trusted voice, will help dispel the myths being spun around the virus’s origins,” he added.
Dr. Fauci responded to Mr. Daszak’s email on April 19, writing, “Many thanks for your kind note.”
On Aug. 22, 2022, Dr. Fauci announced his retirement as head of NIAID. Two days later, NIH officials terminated EcoHealth’s grant associated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology after EcoHealth, despite multiple congressional requests, was unable to hand over its lab notebooks and other records from its Chinese partner related to its work involving modified bat viruses.
• Kelly Sadler is the commentary editor at The Washington Times.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.