Denials by Fauci and Collins of Supporting Gain-of-Function Research Are "Brazenly Untruthful"
As concerns mount regarding the US's funding of gain-of-function research on dangerous pathogens, documents from a 2014 public records request cast doubt on the honesty of health officials
While gain-of-function research—and its potential connection to the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)—continues to generate headlines, and inquiries from Congress, one aspect of this evolving story over the past several years has remained constant: Anthony Fauci’s repeated evasions and outright denials about the U.S. government’s funding of this type of risky research, which can make viruses more deadly.
When questioned during a November 2021 Senate hearing about the National Institutes of Health funneling money to the WIV, and whether the lab there conducted GOF research of concern, Fauci issued a complex denial. Much of it rested on lawyerly semantics, where he admitted that “gain of function is a very nebulous term.” And in a hearing in May 2021, Fauci responded to similar questions narrowly, that “the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
As I explained in my piece on gain-of-function research for The Free Press last week—according to numerous experts and an obvious reading of the grant applications for work conducted at the WIV—the NIH, indeed, did fund this type of research in Wuhan.
But, let’s set that aside. Amid the various hearings and interviews and articles, it’s easy to get confused by the details. Instead, our attention should focus on one, very important statement, with a far more audacious claim.
In May 2021, in the face of increasing scrutiny, Francis Collins, then head of the NIH—which issues grants with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci’s old agency—released a statement that said:
Neither NIH nor NIAID have ever approved any grant that would have supported “gain-of-function” research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans.
This statement wasn’t just related to Wuhan. It was a blanket disavowal that the government funded any of this research, ever. It is hard to overemphasize how suspect this claim is, when considering the following:
In 2014, the NIH issued a pause on all government funding of gain-of-function research on influenza, and SARS and MERS (both of which are diseases caused by coronaviruses) that “reasonably may be anticipated” to enhance respiratory transmissibility among mammals and/or the pathogenicity (i.e. lethality or ability to produce disease) of the resulting virus. The “pause” was put into effect over concerns about the safety of these types of experiments, which purposefully make pathogens more dangerous and that could lead to a pandemic.
Right here is a moment for our own pause. Why would there need to be an official suspension of funding for this type of work if, according to Collins, the NIH had never funded this type of work?
The only possibility would be that the pause was on research projects the NIH worried might be GOF research of concern, and then decided none of the research actually met that bar.
But is that what happened?
The NIH/NIAID identified 18 projects that potentially met the criteria for the pause. A Freedom of Information Act request by Science magazine, submitted in 2014, right after the pause, gives us a direct window into the specific projects the NIH targeted. The response to the FOIA request, which I found here, exposed all 18 letters that were sent by NIH to the principal investigators on those projects, notifying them of the funding pause and asking them to stop their work.
Below is a particularly important letter. Notice it relates to research on “high pathogenic human coronavirus infection.”
Take note of the grant number and the principal investigator:
The following year, a study titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence” was published in the journal Nature Medicine. Ralph Baric was the lead author, and Zheng-li Shi of Wuhan Institute of Virology was a co-author. Among the grants that funded this study was U19AI107810, the grant that was flagged in the pause letter.
Baric, Shi, and and coauthors generated “a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.” The results indicate that the virus can “replicate efficiently in primary human airway cells and achieve in vitro titers equivalent to epidemic strains of SARS-CoV. Additionally, in vivo experiments demonstrate replication of the chimeric virus in mouse lung with notable pathogenesis.”
Another paper, in 2016, called “SARS-like WIV1-CoV poised for human emergence,” was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ralph Baric was the lead author. And, this study, too, was funded through grant U19AI107810.
In this study, Baric and coauthors constructed chimeric coronaviruses, and wrote that “both full-length and chimeric WIV1-CoV readily replicated efficiently in human airway cultures and in vivo, suggesting capability of direct transmission to humans.”
How did these projects creating chimeric bat coronaviruses–which were targeted for the pause–continue and ultimately lead to published research?
Of the 18 projects that were flagged, the NIH granted exemptions to at least 7 of them. The sole criteria listed in the pause document for if a project was eligible for exemption was if a funding-agency director determined that the research was “urgently necessary to protect public health or national security.”
A 2014 Science magazine piece corroborates the exemption language in the pause document. It reported that researchers on 5 MERS projects had “applied for an exemption, spelled out in the moratorium policy, that allows for continuing work ‘urgently necessary to protect the public health.’” The NIH later confirmed that all five MERS projects, along with two influenza projects, were exempted from the pause.
Within the NIH confirmation there was no mention that the exemptions were granted because the experiments didn’t meet the criteria for gain-of-function research of concern. In other words, the only reason the research projects were exempted was because the funding-agency director deemed them to be urgently necessary.
1) Francis Collins claimed that the NIH/NIAID never approved any grant that would have supported “gain-of-function” research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans.
2) The NIH halted research on 18 separate projects, at least five of which were on coronaviruses, for potentially creating versions that were more deadly in or transmissible among humans.
3) Five projects on coronaviruses were exempted from the pause—solely because a funding-agency official declared they were urgently necessary.
The apparent falsity of the Collins statement is so striking that I wondered if perhaps I was confused. I reached out to Dr. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, and an expert on and vocal critic of gain-of-function research of concern. We ran through the Collins statement and the various documents, of which Ebright was already familiar. Ebright—who has testified before Congress about gain-of-function research—said, “Collins’ statement, like similar statements made by Fauci, is untruthful. Knowingly, willfully, and brazenly untruthful.”
To be clear, the evidence presented here does not specifically suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic was triggered by a lab leak in Wuhan.
However, one has to wonder, what is the reason for such vehement denials by Collins and Fauci about their approvals for funding this type of research when the evidence shows otherwise?
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