Did Fauci mislead Congress? NIH letter deepens concerns.

Thomas Peter/Reuters/File
A security member keeps watch outside Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the COVID-19, in Wuhan, China, Feb. 3, 2021.

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“‘I told you so’ doesn’t even begin to cover it,” tweeted GOP Sen. Rand Paul this week. 

In a heated exchange earlier this summer, the Kentucky senator accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of not being straight with Congress about whether U.S. taxpayer dollars had been used to carry out a risky type of coronavirus research in Wuhan, China.

Why We Wrote This

A lack of transparency has undermined trust in public health officials and scientists, who are not only dealing with the current pandemic but also trying to understand how to prevent future ones.

Dr. Fauci was unequivocal: “The NIH [National Institutes of Health] has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

NIH still maintains that position. But in a letter to Congress this week, the agency admitted that U.S.-funded work in Wuhan from 2018-19 produced “unexpected” results that the grant recipient, EcoHealth Alliance, should have reported immediately. Instead, it did not submit a report until August of this year.

The published experiments involved viruses genetically distant from the one that caused the current pandemic. But critics point to a lack of transparency and oversight of such research that undermines public trust in the officials and scientists at the heart of understanding, communicating, and preventing current and future pandemic risks.

“The type of research that could have created COVID-19 – that type of research was occurring,” says Senator Paul.

“ ‘I told you so’ doesn’t even begin to cover it,” tweeted GOP Sen. Rand Paul this week. 

In a scathing exchange earlier this summer, the Kentucky senator accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of not being straight with Congress about whether U.S. taxpayer dollars had been used to carry out a risky type of coronavirus research in Wuhan, China.

“The NIH [National Institutes of Health] has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” responded a clearly perturbed Dr. Fauci.

Why We Wrote This

A lack of transparency has undermined trust in public health officials and scientists, who are not only dealing with the current pandemic but also trying to understand how to prevent future ones.

At issue was research overseen by a New York-based organization, EcoHealth Alliance. Together with its partners in China, EcoHealth has worked extensively on identifying bat coronaviruses that could spill over into humans, with the idea that such work could help researchers get ahead of and thus prevent a pandemic. Dr. Fauci has long been a proponent of such research, and EcoHealth funneled at least $600,000 of NIH grant money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to carry out this research since 2014. But many scientists see such work as unnecessarily risky, especially when carried out in foreign labs that don’t have the same safety protocols and reporting requirements as in the U.S.  

In a new twist, the NIH admitted this week that the U.S.-funded research had produced “unexpected” results. The agency, which wrote a letter to Republican lawmakers who have been demanding answers for months, maintained it had done no wrong. But it blamed EcoHealth Alliance for failing to immediately report back when a bat coronavirus it was tinkering with started killing humanized mice at an unusually high rate during the fifth and final year of its grant in 2018-19. EcoHealth filed its progress report on that research on Aug. 3 of this year. NIH told the Monitor it requested the belated report in July, and EcoHealth Alliance said it was working with NIH to address a “misconception” about its research and the reporting requirements. 

The NIH letter fuels mounting concerns about funding and oversight of this risky type of research. The data published by EcoHealth involve viruses genetically distant from the one that causes COVID-19, and no one is pointing to those viruses as the cause of the pandemic. But two years into a public health crisis blamed for millions of deaths and widespread economic damage, critics say the letter reveals a lack of transparency that undermines public trust in the officials and scientists at the heart of understanding, communicating, and preventing current and future pandemic risks.

Visko Hatf/National Geographic/AP/File
Dr. Anthony Fauci does an interview with National Geographic at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, during the filming of the documentary "Fauci," in June 2021.

The NIH stands by the statements of NIH Director Francis Collins, who will be stepping down at the end of the year, and Dr. Fauci, who oversees the NIH institute that deals with infectious diseases. Even in light of the new information, Dr. Fauci could argue his statements were accurate according to the definition NIH uses to determine whether risky virus research merits additional review. But GOP lawmakers say the documents, which were produced as the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit launched by The Intercept, reveal a fuller picture than either official previously divulged to Congress.

“We now know for certain that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins have been misleading the American people for months,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the leading Republican member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, in a statement to the Monitor. She has called for a bipartisan investigation. “It is also clear there are significant failures at the NIH to properly oversee grant funding. EcoHealth Alliance violated the terms of their grant, has refused to cooperate with NIH, yet NIH continues to fund EcoHealth Alliance. This a serious breakdown of trust, accountability, and transparency.” 

A spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee run by Chairman Frank Pallone of New Jersey, when asked whether it would hold hearings on the risks, review, and oversight of U.S.-funded gain of function research, replied: “The Committee is focused on expanding the vaccination program, continuing mitigation efforts, saving lives, and finally bringing an end to this terrible pandemic.”

“Unnecessarily risky experiments”

Representative McMorris Rodgers, one of the leading Republicans pressing the NIH and other government agencies for detailed answers over the past year, said that the documents released “show that NIH was in fact funding gain of function research in China through EcoHealth Alliance.” But NIH rejects that characterization. 

Part of the issue is that scientists don’t agree on what “gain of function” means, or the risks involved, which led to a 2014-17 moratorium on such research involving certain viruses. 

When the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lifted the moratorium and issued new guidelines, it focused on “enhanced potential pandemic pathogens.” HHS established a review process for grant proposals that could be “reasonably anticipated” to involve those pathogens, but left it up to individual funding agencies like NIH to determine which proposals to flag for review. 

In a statement to the Monitor, the NIH said that EcoHealth Alliance’s grant proposal, “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” was not flagged for review – and would not have been even if the unexpected results detailed in EcoHealth’s Aug. 3 progress report had been known beforehand. That’s because the viruses they were researching weren’t known to infect humans and the research wasn’t expected to make those viruses more of a threat to humans. 

The NIH letter to Congress, written by principal deputy director Lawrence Tabak, downplayed what he called a “limited experiment” that was in no way linked to the outbreak of COVID-19. 

In a statement, EcoHealth Alliance said it was “working with the NIH to promptly address what we believe to be a misconception about the grant’s reporting requirements and what the data from our research showed. These data were reported as soon as we were made aware, in our year 4 report in April 2018. NIH reviewed those data and did not indicate that secondary review of our research was required, in fact year 5 funding was allowed to progress without delay.” The August 2021 report included significantly more detailed research results, however.

David Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University and one of the leading voices for the 2014 moratorium, says the term “gain of function” has a complicated and confusing history and usage. 

“I suggest we avoid this term and talk instead about unusually and unnecessarily risky experiments,” he said in an emailed comment, saying that this work falls into that category in his view, resulting in enhanced pathogenicity of an already dangerous agent. “I personally would not have undertaken these experiments, and would have advised NIH not to have funded them, despite the worthiness of the questions they sought to address.” 

“Political witch hunt” no excuse for lack of transparency

Indeed, the purpose of gain of function research is well-intentioned, says Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican pressing the government for answers. It’s not like Dr. Fauci or EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak set out to cause the next pandemic, he says.  

But, he adds that, in his mind, the only thing that explains their unwillingness to be transparent to Congress is that their well-intentioned effort to prevent a pandemic resulted in “a massive screw-up.” 

“They have egg on their face – and they don’t want to admit it,” he says.

He calls for complete transparency, including releasing every document related to EcoHealth and other organizations doing this type of virus research. He’d also like to see the Biden administration declassify all the intelligence related to the outbreak of the coronavirus, and says it’s “eminently sensible” to stop all taxpayer funding of gain of function research pending an investigation of the origins of the pandemic – including the possibility that it started with a lab leak. USAID recently announced another $125 million to detect viruses with pandemic potential.

Representative Gallagher, Senator Paul, and other critics acknowledge that the viruses detailed in the new NIH documents are substantially different from the one that causes COVID-19, and thus is not direct proof of the lab leak hypothesis.

A U.S. intelligence community review this summer about COVID-19's origin proved inconclusive, and many scientists including Dr. Collins still favor the theory that the virus evolved in nature. But for others, the new  documents reveal another reason: lax oversight and a lack of compliance with grant guidelines. 

“The type of research that could have created COVID-19 – that type of research was occurring,” says Senator Paul. “Is there a possibility that the Chinese researchers haven’t been completely forthright, and haven’t told us about other viruses they had in their lab?”

On June 3, Senator Paul wrote to Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Gary Peters requesting hearings on the security and health risks of such research. In a brief hallway interview Thursday, Senator Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said he wasn’t aware of the NIH letter. His staff did not respond to follow-up requests with links to the letter.

Angela Rasmussen, a University of Saskatchewan virologist, has been one of the most vocal critics of the lab leak theory, and has defended EcoHealth Alliance’s mission and said they have been subjected to unfair criticism. However, she is calling for EcoHealth Alliance [EHA], which received funding from multiple U.S. government agencies, to proactively release all its data – not just what NIH is asking for. 

“The only path forward is unmitigated transparency. While I condemn the political witch hunt this has become, that doesn’t excuse the obligation to the public that has funded most of EHA’s work via USAID, NIH, & DoD,” she wrote in a Twitter thread. Dr. Rasmussen wrote that hoarding data obtained through taxpayer funding doesn’t help improve pandemic preparedness – and undermines not only the organization but the profession as a whole. “Release the data and set yourselves free. It’s the only way.”

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