Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul wants the Justice Department to investigate whether President Biden’s top medical adviser, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, committed the crime of lying to Congress when he claimed that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in which he’s a senior official “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)” in China.
And if I was Fauci, who is also the long-time director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, I would be lawyering up. For if the Biden Justice Department is a truly non-political law enforcement agency, Fauci is going to have a heck of a time proving both that his statement (which he’s made in testimony at least twice) wasn’t a deliberately told falsehood. (See here and here for these instances.)
Before I explain why, it’s important to specify what Paul’s charge is not about. It’s not about whether the grants given by Fauci’s agency to the WIV funded any research that went into actually creating the CCP Virus specifically. Therefore, contrary to Fauci’s statement (found in the Washington Post report linked above), it’s not about whether he bears any responsibility for causing this pandemic.
Nor is Paul’s charge about whether these U.S. government agencies financed such research in defiance of a three-year pause on such activity mandated by the Obama administration in October, 2014.
Nor – and this is crucial – does Paul’s charge have anything to do with the controversy among virologists about defining gain-of-function research.
As I explained in this post, these kinds of questions are all important, and should be looked into.
But what Paul is claiming is that Fauci lied in contending that NIAD and NIH never funded activity that is defined explicitly by the U.S. government. That matters because as a federal official, Fauci presumably is required to use this definition as his definition. And whereas in the above-linked May 30 post, I wasn’t convinced of Fauci’s guilt, the evidence demonstrating that NIAD and NIH funded work that matches now looks pretty cut and dry to me – especially since Paul last week gave Fauci a chance to climb down from his claim, and since new evidence has emerged.
Let’s start with that definition of gain-of-function: According to the announcement of the gain-of-function pause, new funding would be suspended
“for gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. The research funding pause would not apply to characterization or testing of naturally occurring influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses, unless the tests are reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility and/or pathogenicity.”
Now for the two pieces of evidence that should have Fauci awfully worried.
The first consists of an article published in 2015 in the journal Nature by a team of U.S., Swiss, and Chinese scientists (the latter from the WIV), which examined the disease potential of a SARS-like virus, SHC014-CoV, which is currently circulating in Chinese horseshoe bat populations.”
The authors went on to explain that, using reverse genetics, they “generated and characterized a chimeric virus expressing the spike of bat coronavirus SHC014 in a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone.” A chimeric virus, according to this definition, is one “made by inserting the genetic material of one virus into the genome of another, safe surrogate, and these introduced sequences are passed on when the virus replicates.”
The article is important because it lists among funders for this project the two NIH branches – one of which is Fauci’s NIAID. Moreover, it specifies that
“Experiments with the full-length and chimeric SHC014 recombinant viruses were initiated and performed before the GOF research funding pause and have since been reviewed and approved for continued study by the NIH.”
Talk about a smoking gun! The authors obviously made this statement to preempt charges that either they or the NIH violated the pause. But just as obviously, they were concerned about it to begin with because they themselves considered the work to be “GOF” (gain-of-function).
And why wouldn’t they? The purpose of using reverse genetics to create a virus that doesn’t exist in nature was to examine “the disease potential of a SARS-like virus, SHC014-CoV, which is currently circulating in Chinese horseshoe bat populations” because such naturally occuring pathogens had demonstrated the ability of “cross-species transmission” that could affect humans.
They created the new virus precisely in order to mimick the kind of natural mutation that could theoretically take place in the original virus to find out whether such a mutated pathogen could infect human respiratory systems. And they discovered that some of them could.
Even more important: so evidently did Fauci. On Saturday, February 1, 2020 – during the very earliest stages of the virus’ spread in the United States, Fauci sent the following email message to aide Hugh Auchincloss:
“It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on. I have a conference call at 7:45 AM with [Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex] Azar. It will likely be over at 8:45 AM. Read this paper as well as the email that I will forward to you know. You will have tasks today that must be done.”
The paper was the 2015 Nature article. Auchincloss’ response began:
“The paper you sent me says the experiments were performed before the gain of function pause but have since been reviewed and approved by NIH.”
He continued, “Not sure what means since Emily is sure that no Coronavirus work has gone through the P3 framework.” And then somewhat oddly, he concluded, “She will try to determine if we have any distant ties to this work abroad.”
Emily is Emily Erbelding, who heads much of NIAID’s international research program. The P3 framework is a system created by the Health and Human Services Department to guide “funding decisions on individual proposed research that is reasonably anticipated to create, transfer, or use enhanced PPPs [potential pandemic pathogens].
That last sentence is odd because the Nature article clearly credited NIAID as a funder.
In any event, though, what’s most important is that Auchincloss’ main concern seemed to have been whether any NIAID gain-of-function funding was approved during the pause (which he notes the authors denied). He doesn’t seem to dispute that the experiments qualified as GOF.
Fauci’s main concerns are less clear. Did he understand the broader possibility that NIAD may have helped create the virus? Not strictly according to his phrasing. But his words plainly connote major concern about something. Moreover, there’s no public record shere or anywhere else of him denying that the grant financed GOF work until Paul raised it in May.
Yet this Nature article-related evidence doesn’t exhaust the list of concerns Fauci should have. In his excellent May examination on Medium.com of the debate over the virus’ origins, former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade describes in detail NIAID grants in 2018 and 2019 that he contends clearly funded research that falls under the official definition of GOF.
In his words, the grants were intended to enable WIV virologist Shi Zheng-li
“create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells. Her plan was to take genes that coded for spike proteins possessing a variety of measured affinities for human cells, ranging from high to low. She would insert these spike genes one by one into the backbone of a number of viral genomes …creating a series of chimeric viruses. These chimeric viruses would then be tested for their ability to attack human cell cultures…and humanized mice….And this information would help predict the likelihood of ‘spillover,’ the jump of a coronavirus from bats to people.”
These grants appear to have been compliant with U.S. government policy when they were approved, since the funding pause was lifted at the end of 2017. But again, that isn’t what Paul believes may be a crime on Fauci’s part. The alleged crime has to do with Fauci’s claim that neither NIH nor NIAID ever funded GOF experiments in Wuhan at any time.
The most detailed defense of Fauci has come from the NIH sub-contracter through which its funds were funneled to the WIV – a non-profit called the EcoHealth Alliance. But they don’t even come close to letting Fauci off the hook.
For example, Alliance spokesman Robert Kessler told the Washington Post that
”the EcoHealth funding was not related to the experiments, but the collection of samples. The NIH grant includes language that some say suggests gain-of-function research; NIH says that is a misinterpretation.”
But of course, collecting the samples was integral to the project. And since NIH is in the dock here, its claim of misinterpretation proves nothing.
Moreover, even Kessler didn’t seem satisfied with this argument, as he went on to contend that “As described in the paper, all but two of the viruses cultured in the lab failed to even replicate.” Not only does this mean that two of them did. His claim recalls notoriously spurious claims on the order of “Sure, I stole the money. But I didn’t steal very much.”
As for Kessler’s insistence that “GoF was never the goal here,” the authors’ own reference to abiding by U.S. government GOF guidelines shows that this was exactly the goal.
Finally, as indicated by my reference to the (legitimate) scientific debate over defining GOF, Kessler may have been right when he told the Post that “gain of function research is the specific process of altering human viruses in order to increase their ability (the titular gain of function) either to spread amongst populations, to infect people, or to cause more severe illness.”
But this position has nothing to do with the charge against Fauci, since the U.S. government definition that should have been controlling his decisions never limited its scope to “altering human viruses.” And in fact, how could it? The origins of the MERS and SARS viruses it mentions still haven’t been pinned down. But according to the NIH itself, research suggests they both “originated in bats.” And of course, the authors of the 2017 Nature paper agree, since they described called their work investigating whether viruses found in non-human mammals could mutate to infect humans.
In the U.S. criminal justice system, you’re innocent until proven guilty. So legally speaking, Fauci deserves the benefit of the doubt. Also, evidence might be uncovered absolving him of Paul’s charge. But the existing evidence looks so compelling, a perjury charge is so serious, and Fauci’s role in CCP Virus-fighting policy remains so important, that Paul’s planned investigation request looks entirely reasonable.
Moreover, Fauci himself should welcome the probe, for if conducted properly, it could lift this cloud over his head once and for all. Opposing an investigation, by the same token, can only fuel suspicions that he has something to hide.