There’s been lots of commotion in recent weeks about the decision by chief Biden medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci and National Institutes of Health (NIH) chief Francis Collins to use federal government moneys to fund research on dangerous coronaviruses at labs in China – and that’s good. As I wrote in January, there’s enough compelling circumstantial evidence that these resources helped create the CCP Virus to warrant detailed investigations and possibly their firings.
What’s less good is that much of the commotion is missing or obscuring other problems with the Fauci-Collins approach to scientific cooperation with China that are at least equally serious, and that could constitute comparable grounds for their dismissal.
To be sure, the current emphases on this matter aren’t exactly trivial. Clearly, if federal funding helped pay for research at one of the two major virology labs in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first virus cases have been reported, and that this research created the pathogen that has caused so much illness, death, and economic distress in America and around the world, that would represent one of the worst scandals in American history. There are also the questions of whether the feds funded what’s called gain-of-function research (which is unmistakably capable of producing such deadly pathogens) to begin with, and whether they’ve told Congress the truth about these programs in sworn testimony.
But however grave each of these potential offenses, the figurative jury is still correctly out on each. First, it’s not yet at all certain that the virus even came from either lab, as opposed to some form of natural origin. In addition, since there’s no hard-and-fast scienitific consensus on defining gain-of-function research (here’s an official federal summary of the debate), it’s not yet known whether such activity was actually financed by the federal government. It’s true that there’s a U.S. government definition that applies specifically to grants for such activity. But Washington has also given itself wiggle room in applying it.
As a result, it’s far from obvious that Fauci specifically perjured himself in telling Congress that he’s innocent of such accusations. More frustrating, because the term is so fuzzy, a fair and just conclusion may be genuinely impossible to reach. This holds in principle despite Collins’ claim (not under oath) that NIH has never “approved any grant that would have supported ‘gain-of-function’ research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans” – which of course raises the question of what kind of gain-of-function work might have been approved.
Moreover, even if Fauci and Collins did actually approve gain-of-function research in China, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the particular project they subsidized produced the virus in question. And that may never be finally determined, either, because China may well have destroyed the evidence needed to provide a definitive answer.
When it comes, however, to making sure that U.S. international science cooperation policy adequately safeguards America’s health and security going forward, some crucial questions are being neglected so far.
For example, just before its term ran out, the Trump administration stated publicly that even though the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV – which received the controversial U.S. research grant) presents itself as a “civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.” Nor has the Biden administration disputed this allegation – even when the President’s national security adviser was asked about it directly.
Further, virus research has always had obvious links to biological weapons research, and there’s no bright line in China (or anywhere in the world these days) between civilian technologies and innovation and military technologies and innovation. No one with any credibility has explicitly charged that Beijing intended the results of its virology research to be used militarily. But no one with a lick of common sense could dismiss this prospect, either. Did either Fauci or Collins consider it? If so, neither has mentioned it yet.
Then there are the secrecy and oversight issues. Fauci has claimed that “You never know” whether grant recipients are trustworthy. But even though governments in both China and the United States (and every other country) keep lots of secrets, military and otherwise, and even though all go overboard with the secrecy too often, who can doubt that China is in a class by itself for blocking transparency, and for lacking systemic means of exposing improperly kept secrets?
In other words, even assuming that the U.S. government can never completely ensure that grantees won’t lie, did Fauci or Collins ever consider that trustworthiness in China is a special problem, and required special monitoring procedures to be in place before any money was transferred – especially given the bio-weapons angle? Not only is there, again, no reason yet to believe that either of them did, Fauci has even told Congress that the Chinese recipients are in fact “trustworthy.” (See the above-linked CNBC.com post. .
And don’t forget safety – an issue on which the available evidence indicates that lackadaisical attitudes weren’t confined to Fauci and Collins.
A Washington Post article has reported that in 2018 – that is, during the Trump administration – concerns about the WIV’s coronavirus studies led the State Department to send some of its China-based science specialists to the facility to check on its safety conditions. They found enough subpar standards and practices to warn about the risks of a leak causing a pandemic. And here’s where the story gets especially troubling, and where many more questions need to be answered.
According to the Post report, the WIV’s own officials asked for help in this regard, and the State Department inspectors concluded that the best U.S. response was providing assistance – both because they considered the work to be valuable and because the coronavirus research was being supported by “the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other U.S. organizations.” That is, the NIH of Fauci and Collins wasn’t the only federal government sources of funding.
It’s not clear that they also got word of the slipshod conditions at the WIV. It’s not even clear that the Galveston lab did. But is it credible to suppose that they were left in the dark? (Its head, interestingly, gave a non-denial-type denial in this April, 2020 interview. To my knowledge, Fauci hasn’t been asked the question.)
All that’s known for sure is (1) that the Post article (and a follow-up Politico piece from the same correspondent, Josh Rogin) reported that the State Department inspectors’ request for more assistance wasn’t granted; and (2) that the NIH-funded research wasn’t suspended until April, 2020.
It’s vital that responses to all these unanswered and sometimes unasked questions be forthcoming.
At this point, therefore, it’s possible that Fauci and Collins are off the hook on the safety issue – and that others who served in the State Department during the Trump years are squarely hanging from it. Otherwise, however, it looks like this pair decided to support dangerous and potentially catastrophic biological research by a regime known for its disregard for the safety of its own people – let alone foreigners – in its pursuit of power, for its eagerness to turn scientific advances into military assets, for its obsession with secrecy and impressive capability for remaining opaque, and, last but not least, for its growing determination to challenge U.S. national security interests.
Finding out why on earth this idea ever entered or stayed in their heads seems a lot more important than haggling over whether in some technical or even legal sense they were or weren’t funding gain-of-function research.