Looking at some of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci’s recent related comments about the renewed controversy over the CCP Virus’ origins and U.S.-China scientific cooperation, it’s easy to conclude that, when it comes to anything other than the science of infectious diseases, the anti-virus point man in this administration and its predecessor is pathetically naive. Easy and misleading – and above all, useless in terms of the imperative of reducing the odds that such deadly pandemics break out again.
Only a little less distracting are charges that Fauci and his boss, head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Dr. Francis Collins, have downplayed evidence that the virus escaped from a Chinese virology lab because they approved federal funding for research there. In this view, they’re trying to cover up having sent taxpayer dollars to a facility that either manufactured the virus or was operated carelessly enough practically to guarantee a leak.
Of course, if the two are covering up, they should be fired and investigated criminally (e.g., for violating federal guidelines governing the financing of such research, or for lying to Congress, or both).
But the most serious problem raised by actions we know about for sure is that they’re both scientists. Undoubtedly, they and their colleagues in these fields have invaluable contributions to make to help the country’s policymakers make the biggest calls when science-based problems threaten major, multidimensional damage to the nation’s well-being. Yet they’re utterly unqualified to make such calls, which entail major considerations outside their discipline, themselves. And this point applies these days particularly to Fauci, who has practically blanketed the new media since the virus’ potential to hit the United States became clear, and whose pronouncements on responses that have inevitably and profoundly impacted every corner of American life have been widely viewed as gospel – including by President Biden.
In this case, the reason is that one of the biggest features of this profession’s culture – the overriding value it places on knowledge sharing and collaboration – can be downright dangerous when scientists have to deal with the outside world, which of course contains ruthless and dangerous regimes like China’s. This powerful collaborative ethos – which is unquestionably has fostered much and even most vital scientific and technological progress, and which surely will continue to do so – in turn sheds light on a subject I wrote about at the end of last month: why Fauci and colleagues have acted so thoroughly oblivious to, and sometimes positively obtuse about, the risks of cooperating with China.
Both the naivete and corruption charges have been fueled by Fauci statements like the following:
>his February, 2020 contention that “early on in the outbreak it was clear that there was some muddling of information, but over the last several weeks, the Chinese authorities have really been very explicit that they were not going to tolerate any misinformation going out because it really was clear that no one was believing them, and they’re really very sensitive to that right now” and
>his June 3 claim that “It’s obviously in China’s interests to find out exactly what it is. And the ‘is’ of the natural theory would be to find that link. So you have to keep looking for it.”
Not helpful either: remarks like “The idea, I think, is quite far-fetched that the Chinese deliberately engineered something so that they could kill themselves, as well as other people. I think that’s a bit far out” – which on top of being an obvious absurdity, ignores the possibility that the virus was being stored in a naturally occuring form at one of the facilities of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and leaked out because of shoddy safety practices.
In addition, given that he’s the (very) long-time head of the U.S. agency within the NIH that specializes in infectious diseases like coronaviruses, Fauci seems surprisingly ill-informed about conditions at the WIV. Last week in another interview, he called it “a very well known, highly qualified laboratory.”
Yet as early as January, 2018, State Department officials reported after an inspection tour that the Institute’s single supposedly world-class lab was plagued with safety issues. And the WIV’s top bat coronavirus expert (and a Fauci grant recipient) admitted shortly after the pandemic’s outbreak that she performed much of her most dangerous research – the gain-of-function work that seeks to heighten natural virus’ most dangerous qualities to assess their potential to infect humans – at WIV facilities which maintained considerably lower fewer safety standards.
Further, Fauci seems to have been curiously unaware that China’s military was closely involved with the WIV’s work, or that in China, the military is entitled to learn the results of any research performed by officially civilian scientists. In the second above-linked June interview, he took great pains to argue there’s a bright line between the two sectors – even after hearing that the U.S. armed forces’ top official declared these categories to be distinctions without differences.
But the recent Vanity Fair investigation linked above reports that “U.S. government virologists” themselves had found an April, 2020 WIV study in which eleven of the 23 listed authors worked for the Chinese military’s medical research institute. In addition, by that time, U.S. National Security Council officials had “tracked collaborations between the WIV and military scientists—which stretch back 20 years, with 51 coauthored papers.” Author Katherine Eban also writes that by mid-January, 2020, “a team of military scientists led by China’s top virologist and biochemical expert, Major General Chen Wei, had set up operations inside the WIV.” And as I documented in my post late last month, President Biden’s own chief national security adviser publicly confirmed this relationship in February.
None of this necessarily means that the WIV was trying to create a coronavirus-based bio-weapon, as some have suggested. But all of it underscores Beijing’s policy of treating everything produced or discovered by Chinese entities, and especially of course by any formal Chinese government agencies, as resources that must be put at the disposal of the leadership to be used in any way it sees fit.
And then of course there’s Fauci’s jumble of inconsistent statements, including under oath to Congressional committees, about whether any of his agency’s grants to the WIV were spent on gain-of- function research, on how much realistically could have known about how the monies were spent once they were out the door, and whether he tried to evade government restrictions (although not an outright ban) on supporting such experiments. (See my post last month for examples.)
Look more carefully at Fauci’s recent remarks, however, and you’ll find evidence of beliefs that more convincingly represent his ultimate bottom line, and whose fatal flaws must be recognized if Washington is to prepare for future pandemics more effectively. Having lived all his professional life in the collaborative culture of science, Fauci has become incapable of admitting first, that fellow scientists can be untrustworthy and even nefarious if they come from untrustworthy, nefarious governments; and second, that even those governments themselves need to treated with extreme caution.
Indeed, as with so many in his profession, Fauci has become infatuated enough by the promise of unfettered international scientific cooperation to mistakes the ideal as the reality – or as a reality eminently and imminently attainable if not for paranoid or shortsighted laymen. Nothing, therefore, is more instinctive to him than taking for granted the good will and sense of global responsibility of the Chinese government, or insisting that its totalitarian rulers – whose obsession with controlling every significant aspect of their people’s lives must be apparent to any thinking person – leave their scientists free to pursue the truth whatever the political or geopolitical consequences.
Why else, for example, would he tell Fox News talker Laura Ingraham (in the above-linked February, 2020 appearance on her show), that his Chinese counterparts are credible on the virus’ origins and biology because
“there’s Chinese officials, party people, and there’s Chinese scientists. The Chinese scientists we’ve dealt with, I’ve dealt with myself personally for years, if not decades, many of them have trained here in the United States – now, today, when we communicate with them, which we do almost on a daily basis – I’m gonna be on a conference call tomorrow with a couple of them – I have faith that they are not distorting things. Now what the party leaders do, I can’t address. That’s not what I do. But at a medical-to-medical level, I can believe my colleagues there, and what they’re telling me now, I think, is the truth.”
Why else would he add that
“I cannot say that I am satisfied with every single bit of information [coming from China about the virus’ trajectory and origin]. But I can tell you in my direct interaction with Chinese scientists and Chinese health officials, not party politics people, but medical people and scientists, that I can believe what they’re telling me”?
Why else would he make virtually the same point in one of those June, 2021 interviews:
“The scientists in the Wuhan lab for years and years among credible, trusted scientists in China – we’re not talking about the Communist Chinese Party. We’re not talking about the Chinese military. We’re talking about scientists we’ve had relationships for years.”?
In the same session, a related characteristic of the scientist caste came through loud and clear as well: Its clubiness. In a detailed look at the virus origin debate last month former New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade observed that:
“Virologists around the world are a loose-knit professional community. They write articles in the same journals. They attend the same conferences. They have common interests in seeking funds from governments and in not being overburdened with safety regulations.”
He emphasizes the latter point and the disaster it might have created:
“Virologists knew better than anyone the dangers of gain-of-function research. But the power to create new viruses, and the research funding obtainable by doing so, was too tempting. They pushed ahead with gain-of-function experiments. They lobbied against the moratorium imposed on Federal funding for gain-of-function research in 2014 and it was raised in 2017.”
But the purely social ties of this community’s members matter also in assessing its judgment, and in his numerous interviews, Fauci makes clear not only their strength but their incestuousness. For when asked why he trusted his Chinese colleagues’ honesty and good faith, his consistent answer amounted to “Because I know them so well.”
There’s the above June interview statement that
“The scientists in the Wuhan lab for years and years….we’re not talking about the Communist Chinese Party. We’re not talking about the Chinese military. We’re talking about scientists we’ve had relationships for years.”
:The Chinese scientists we’ve dealt with, I’ve dealt with myself personally for years, if not decades, many of them have trained here in the United States – now, today, when we communicate with them, which we do almost on a daily basis – I’m gonna be on a conference call tomorrow with a couple of them – I have faith that they are not distorting things.”
“[W]e have very many years of experience of productive interaction with Chinese scientists. For example, Dr. George Gao, who’s the director of the Chinese CDC [Centers for Disease Control], has been a colleague for many years. He’s a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences….”
In other words, “Trust us. We trained lots of them. And George Gao – we initiated him into the fraternity.”
In Laura Ingraham appearance, right after vouching for all the Chinese scientists he’s long known, added that “what the party leaders do, I can’t address. That’s not what I do.” And he’s absolutely right. It’s not his job to be an expert on the Chinese political system (though you’d think he might have learned a thing or two after all those decades dealing with the scienists).
But for precisely that reason, federal government scientists like him (and surely other subject-specific specialists) clearly need their international activities much more tightly supervised by political appointees directly representing an accountable to the administration in power, and that goes double for their interactions with China, which raise so many political, national security and, as the pandemic has made so clear, economic, social, and cultural questions.
It’s long been a cliché that war is too important to leave to the generals. The pandemic and Fauci’s record on scientific collaboration are unmistakably teaching the imperative of recognizing that America needs to be just as mindful that this activity is too important to leave to the scientists.