Our Experts’ Epidemic Of Incompetence
This piece is part of a new series from TAC, “Taking the Mask Off.” For more about the series, click here.
China may have fired the gun to set off the Covid-19 pandemic, but American public health experts may have loaded and cocked it.
Thanks to Freedom of Information Act litigation, The Intercept has obtained more than 900 pages of documents that confirm and detail what many observers have long suspected. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, provided more than $3 million in grant money that went towards research to make coronaviruses more transmissible in humans from 2014 to 2019. Some of that cash, a whole $600,000 worth, made its way to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which some believe to be ground zero for the Covid-19 pandemic’s outbreak. Blame China for its Covid coverup all you want, but the documents released by The Intercept thus far confirm America’s expert class shares at least some culpability for the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, if the ever-more-likely theory that Covid-19 leaked from a Chinese lab proves to be true.
The grant awarded to EcoHealth Alliance in June of 2014 forked over $3.1 million over the span of six years, stipulating the transfer of nearly $600,000 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Using the grant money, EcoHealth planned to collect a vast number of bat samples from China and test them for novel or existing coronaviruses, survey large numbers of individuals who work with live animals (such as workers at wet markets), and test coronaviruses on humanized mice to see how different tissues react, which some scientists believe amounts to gain-of-function research. Gain-of-function research is a controversial field of virology involving the genetic alteration of viral pathogens to make them more infectious or dangerous (sometimes both) to humans. While proponents of gain-of-function research claim it can help scientists develop therapeutics and vaccines for viruses more quickly, critics claim it actually lays the groundwork for a potential pandemic, a scenario that may have played out with Covid-19. In April of last year, EcoHealth’s president, Peter Daszak, thanked Fauci for helping dismiss lab-leak Covid origin theories.
These NIAID-funded experiments weren’t just carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as previous reports suspected. They were also conducted at Wuhan University’s Center for Animal Experiment, a far cry from Fauci’s denials.
The recently revealed documents also show the researchers knew they were playing with fire all along. “Fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARS or other Co Vs, while working in caves with high bat density overhead and the potential for fecal dust to be inhaled,” the grant approval admits. “There is also some risk of exposure to pathogens or physical injury while handling bats, civets, rodents or other animals, their blood samples or their excreta.”
The EcoHealth investigative and research team weren’t the only ones aware of the moral and health hazards associated with their research. The federal government issued a moratorium on gain-of-function research in 2014 after Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lab personnel were exposed to anthrax, only to repeal the ban just three years later in 2017.
To justify their reversal, the NIH put in place a review process performed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) called the Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework for any NIH grant directed towards gain-of-function research. Simultaneously, the HHS adopted such a narrow definition of what constitutes gain-of-function research that some scientists claim the P3CO review process could be circumvented so easily that it rendered the entire review process obsolete. HHS’s updated definition created carve-outs for research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens (PPP) if they are either part of “surveillance activities” or “associated with developing and producing vaccines.”
NIH responded to a request for comment after publication deadline, providing this general statement:
NIH has never approved any research that would make a coronavirus more dangerous to humans. The research we supported in China, where coronaviruses are prevalent, sought to understand the behavior of coronaviruses circulating in bats that have the potential to cause widespread disease. The body of science produced by this research demonstrates that the bat coronavirus sequences published from that work NIH supported were not SARS-CoV-2. More importantly, because of similar research to understand coronaviruses, we were able to move swiftly to develop vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 and save lives.
In January, Harvard Professor of Epidemiology Marc Lipsitch, a longtime critic of gain-of-function research, pointed out other transparency issues surrounding the P3CO Framework. Even if a grant qualifies for a P3CO review, “none of the details of the analysis related to the HHS decisions approving the 2019 enhanced PPP experiments has been publicly released,” Lipsitch claimed in a journal article.
“Without a publicly released analysis of these experiments, there is no basis for understanding the HHS decision that the research is acceptable,” Lipsitch added.
Upon reviewing the EcoHealth grant documents, Rutgers University molecular biologist and a critic of gain-of-function research Richard Ebright told The Intercept that “the viruses they constructed were tested for their ability to infect mice that were engineered to display human type receptors on their cell” and that EcoHealth was working with MERS-related viruses—not just novel coronaviruses.
In the legislature, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a doctor himself, has been trying to hold Fauci and company to account for purportedly funding gain-of-function research—albeit to varying degrees of success.
Paul appeared on Hannity Tuesday night and took a well-deserved victory lap, but simultaneously conveyed the severe implications of The Intercept’s report. Paul claimed the documents proved that “they were taking viruses that were not as transmissible to humans and adding S proteins, which is how the virus attaches to the cell, from bat viruses out of the cave and lo and behold, they created viruses that are not found in nature more transmissible than when started—the very definition of gain of function.”
“And you’ve never heard one of the journalists that gets to interview Dr. Fauci, you have never heard one of them ask, ‘Why is it not gain of function?’ He just says, ‘Oh, it isn’t.’ Why is it not gain of function? The viruses are more transmissible to humans, why is it not gain of function?” Paul added.
Previously, Paul pressed the “good doctor” on whether or not NIAID funded gain-of-function experiments on bat-borne coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology when Fauci appeared before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in May.
“Gain-of-function research, as you know, is juicing up naturally occurring animal viruses to infect humans. To arrive at the truth, the U.S. government should admit that the Wuhan Virology Institute was experimenting to enhance the coronavirus’s ability to infect humans,” Paul asserted to open his line of inquiry for Fauci.
“For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the U.S., has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create super viruses. This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH. The collaboration between the US. and the Wuhan Virology Institute continues. Drs. Baric and Shi worked together to insert bat virus spike protein into the backbone of the deadly SARS virus, and then used this man-made supervirus to infect human airway cells,” Paul claimed, referencing a 2015 study published in Nature and a 2017 study performed by Shi that altered coronaviruses found in bats to make them more transmissible to humans.
“Dr. Fauci, do you still support NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?” Paul asked.
“Senator Paul, with all due respect,” Fauci responded, before telling the gentleman from Kentucky that he is “entirely, entirely and completely incorrect… The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” Fauci added that if Baric was performing gain-of-function research, it was only in North Carolina.
Dr Fauci dissembled or tried to hide his long time support for ‘gain-of-function’ research which creates super-viruses that jump from animals to humans.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 11, 2021
Ebright, the Rutgers molecular biologist, tweeted that Fauci was “brazenly” lying in his exchange with Paul. “WIV started with a SARS-related coronavirus that does not infect human cells or lab animals and constructed variants that infect human cells and lab animals,” Ebright said in a follow-up tweet. “This meets—unequivocally—definitions for GOF under Pause and potential pandemic pathogen enhancement under HHS P3CO.”
Fauci is lying. Brazenly.
— Richard H. Ebright (@R_H_Ebright) May 11, 2021
Nevertheless, because EcoHealth’s research purportedly did not qualify as gain-of-function research, EcoHealth’s experiments continued apace and were unencumbered by the 2014 moratorium. Twenty-one other NIH gain-of-function pet projects weren’t so lucky, while ten, which were split evenly between the flu and MERS, received exemptions.
Just months before the first cases of Covid-19 cropped up in China, NIAID decided to renew the “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” grant in July of 2019, and the project was not subject to P3CO review because the NIAID determined it did not constitute gain-of-function research that required HHS input, according to a report from the Daily Caller News Foundation (DCNF).
“After careful review of the grant, NIAID determined 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,” an NIH spokesperson told the DCNF.
“We would not submit research proposals that did not meet the definition, because otherwise we would need to submit everything,” the spokesperson added, providing confirmation that an HHS P3CO review only takes place after an NIAID referral.
The Trump administration ordered the NIH to cancel the EcoHealth grant in April 2020, Fauci told Politico in June.
At a July Senate hearing, Paul and Fauci squared off once again over the American public health apparatus’s purported funding of this controversial research. To break the ice, Senator Paul reminded Fauci that lying to Congress is a crime that could carry a prison sentence of five years.
“Viruses that in nature only infect animals were manipulated in the Wuhan lab to gain the function of infecting humans. This research fits the definition of the research the NIH said was subject to the pause in 2014 to 2017, a pause in funding on gain-of-function. But the NIH failed to recognize this, defines it away, and it never came under any scrutiny,” the senator pointed out. “Dr. Fauci, knowing it is a crime to lie to Congress, do you wish to retract your statement?”
Fauci refused to retract his statement, and claimed that grant money was not provided for gain-of-function research. As Paul continued to press, Fauci told the senator, “You do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially. You do not know what you are talking about.”
Despite Big Tech and mainstream media’s tandem efforts to brush aside or belittle heretics like Paul, or worse, label them as conspiracy theorists to get them censored, the documents released by The Intercept seem to suggest that Senator Paul did indeed know what he was talking about. Fauci probably knows it, too, because for someone who claims to be above the partisan fray, the man dubbed “America’s Doctor” certainly has a knack for politics.
At this point, an admission of this caliber from the public health pontiff could expose him and his ilk to the will of the people, embodied in their democratically elected representatives. The president’s chief medical advisor is well aware that the ongoing tit-for-tat between himself and Paul isn’t just a debate in the marketplace of ideas. It’s a test of whether the country’s democratic institutions have the fortitude, or even the ability, to hold unelected bureaucrats like Fauci to account.
This story has been updated with a statement received from the NIH after deadline.