How Dr. Fauci and Other Officials Withheld Information on China's Coronavirus Experiments

For half a year, Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease official, and Kentucky senator and physician Rand Paul have been locked in a battle over whether the National Institutes of Health funded dangerous "gain of function" research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and whether that research could have played a role in the pandemic. Against Senator Paul's aggressive questioning over three separate hearings, Dr. Fauci adamantly denied the charge. "The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology," he said in their first fracas on May 11, a position he has steadfastly maintained.

Recently, however, a tranche of documents surfaced that complicate Dr. Fauci's denials. The documents, obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, show that the NIH was funding research at the Wuhan lab that involved manipulating coronaviruses in ways that could have made them more transmissible and deadly to humans—work that arguably fits the definition of gain-of-function. The documents establish that top NIH officials were concerned that the work may have crossed a line the U.S. government had drawn against funding such risky research. The funding came from the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which Dr. Fauci heads.

The resistance among Dr. Fauci and other NIH officials to be forthcoming with information that could inform the debate over the origins of COVID-19 illustrates the old Watergate-era saw that the coverup is often worse than the crime. There's no evidence that the experiments in question had any direct bearing on the pandemic. In the past, Dr. Fauci has made strong arguments for why this type of research, albeit risky, was necessary to prevent future pandemics, and he could have done so again. But the NIH has dragged its feet over FOIA requests on the matter, handing over documents only after The Intercept took the agency to court.

The apparent eagerness to conceal the documents has only raised suspicions about the controversial research and put the NIH on the defensive. Fauci told ABC, "neither I nor Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, lied or misled about what we've done." The episode is a self-inflicted wound that has further eroded trust in the nation's public health officials at a time when that trust is most important.

While Dr. Fauci takes the political heat, the revelations center on another figure in this drama: Peter Daszak, president of the private research firm EcoHealth Alliance, which received the $3 million NIH grant for coronavirus research and subcontracted the gain-of-function experiments to the Wuhan lab. The activities of Daszak and EcoHealth before the pandemic and during it show a startling lack of transparency about their work with coronaviruses and raise questions about what more there may be to learn.

Under Wraps

From the start, Daszak has worked vigorously to discredit any notion that the pandemic could have been the result of a lab accident. When the media was first grappling with the basics of the situation, Daszak organized a letter in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet from 27 scientists, to "strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin," and got himself appointed to the WHO team investigating COVID origins, where he successfully argued that there was no need to look into the WIV's archives.

Fauci Rand Paul COVID-19 origin hearing
Infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci declared "I am not responsible," after Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul blamed him for having a hand in COVID-19's origin during a contention Thursday hearing. In this image, Fauci responds to accusations by Paul as he testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, July 20, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. J. Scott Applewhite/Getty

What Daszak didn't reveal at the time was that the WIV had been using the NIH grant money to genetically engineer dozens of novel coronaviruses discovered in bat samples, and that he knew it was entirely possible that one of those samples had contained SARS-CoV-2 and had infected a researcher, as he conceded to the journal Science in a November 17 interview: "Of course it's possible—things have happened in the past."

The NIH fought for more than a year to keep details about the EcoHealth grant under wraps. The 528 pages of proposals, conditions, emails, and progress reports revealed that EcoHealth had funded experiments at the WIV that were considerably riskier than the ones previously disclosed.

The trouble began in May 2016, when EcoHealth informed the NIH that it wanted to conduct a series of new experiments during the third year of its five-year grant. One proposed producing "chimeras" made from one SARS-like virus and the spike proteins (which the virus uses to infiltrate animal cells) of others, and testing them in "humanized" mice, which had been genetically engineered to have human-like receptors in their lungs, making them better stand-ins for people. When such novel viruses are created, there is always a risk they will turn out to be dangerous pathogens in their own right.

Another risky experiment involved the MERS virus. Although MERS is lethal—it kills 35 percent of those who catch it—it's not highly transmissible, which is partly why it has claimed fewer than 900 lives so far. EcoHealth wanted to graft the spikes of other related coronaviruses onto MERS to see how that changed its abilities.

Both experiments seemed to cross the gain-of-function line. NIH program officers said as much, sending Daszak a letter asking him to explain why he thought they didn't.

In his reply, Daszak argued that because the new spikes being added to the chimeras were more distantly related to SARS and MERS than their original spikes, he didn't anticipate any enhanced pathogenicity or infectiousness. That was a key distinction that arguably made them exempt from the NIH's prohibition on gain-of-function experiments. But, of course, one never knows; as a precaution, he offered that if any of the chimeric viruses began to grow 10 times better than the natural viruses, which would suggest enhanced fitness, EcoHealth would immediately stop all experiments, inform the NIH program officers, and together they'd figure out what to do next.

The NIH accepted Daszak's terms, inserting his suggestions into the grant conditions. Scientists at WIV conducted the experiments in 2018. To their surprise, the SARS-like chimeras quickly grew 10,000 times better than the natural virus, flourishing in the lab's humanized mice and making them sicker than the original. They had the hallmarks of very dangerous pathogens.

WIV and EcoHealth did not stop the experiment as required. Nor did they let the NIH know what was going on. The results were buried in figure 35 of EcoHealth's year-four progress report, delivered in April 2018.

Did the NIH call Peter Daszak in to explain himself? It did not. There are no signs in the released documents that the NIH even noticed the alarming results. In fact, NIH signaled its enthusiasm for the project by granting EcoHealth a $7.5 million, five-year renewal in 2019. (The Trump administration suspended the grant in 2020, when EcoHealth's relationship with the WIV came under scrutiny.)

In a letter to Congress on October 20, the NIH's Principal Deputy Director, Lawrence Tabak, acknowledged the screwup, but he placed the blame on EcoHealth's door, citing its duty to immediately report the enhanced growth that had occurred: "EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away, as was required by the terms of the grant." In a follow-up interview with the Washington Post, NIH Director Francis Collins was more blunt: "They messed up here. There's going to be some consequences for EcoHealth." So far, the NIH has not elaborated on what those consequences might be.

As damning as the NIH grant documents are, they pale in comparison to another EcoHealth grant proposal leaked to the online investigative group DRASTIC in September. In that 2018 proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research arm, EcoHealth sketched an elaborate plan to discover what it would take to turn a garden-variety coronavirus into a pandemic pathogen. They proposed widely sampling Chinese bats in search of new SARS-related viruses, grafting the spike proteins from those viruses onto other viruses they had in the lab to create a suite of chimeras, then, through genetic engineering, introducing mutations into those chimeras and testing them in humanized mice.

One piece of the proposal was especially Strangelovian. For years, scientists had known that adding a special type of "cleavage site" to the spike could supercharge a virus's transmissibility. Although many viruses in nature have such sites, neither SARS nor any of its cousins do. EcoHealth proposed incorporating human-optimized cleavage sites into the SARS-like viruses it discovered and testing their infectiousness. Such a cleavage site, of course, is exactly what makes SARS-CoV-2 wildly more infectious than its kin. That detail was the reason some scientists initially suspected SARS-CoV-2 might have been engineered in a lab. And while there's no proof that EcoHealth or the WIV ever actively experimented with cleavage sites—EcoHealth says that "the research was never conducted"—the proposal makes it clear that they were considering taking that step as early as 2018.

Peter Daszak
WHO team member Peter Daszak leaves his hotel after the World Health Organization (WHO) team wrapped up its investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 10, 2021. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP) (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

DARPA rejected the proposal, listing among its shortcomings the failures to address the risks of gain-of-function research and the lack of discussion of ethical, legal, and social issues. It was a levelheaded assessment. What's remarkable is that much of the same work that crossed a line for the Department of Defense was embraced by the National Institutes of Health.

Crisis Management Mode

The NIH and EcoHealth have asserted that none of the engineered viruses created with the NIH grant could have become SARS-CoV-2. On that, everyone agrees—the viruses are too distantly related. But the detailed recipe in the DARPA application is a blueprint for doing just that with a more closely related virus.

In September, scientists from France's Pasteur Institute announced the discovery of just such a virus—SARS-CoV-2's closest known relative—in a bat cave in Laos. Although still too distant from SARS-CoV-2 to have been the direct progenitor, and lacking the all-important cleavage site, it was a kissing cousin.

The discovery was hailed by some scientists as evidence that SARS-CoV-2 must have had a natural origin. But the plot turned in November, when another trove of NIH documents—released in response to a FOIA request by the White Coat Waste Project—brought the evidence trail right to EcoHealth's doorstep.

In 2017, EcoHealth had informed the NIH that it would be shifting its focus to Laos and other countries in Southeast Asia, where the wildlife trade was more active, relying on local partner organizations to do the sample collecting and to send the samples to the WIV for their ongoing work. EcoHealth told Newsweek that it did not directly undertake or fund any of the sampling in Laos. "Any samples or results from Laos are based on WIV's work, funded through other mechanisms," says a company spokesman.

Regardless of who paid for the collecting portion of the project, it's clear that for years, a large number of bat samples from the region that harbors viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 were sent to the WIV. In other words, EcoHealth's team was in the right place at the right time to have found things very close to SARS-CoV-2 and to have sent them to Wuhan. Because there's a lag of several years between when samples are collected and when experiments involving those viruses are published, the most recent papers from EcoHealth and the WIV date to 2015. The identity of the viruses found between 2016 and 2019 are known only to the two organizations, neither of which has been willing to share that information with the world.

A lack of evidence proves nothing, but neither does it put EcoHealth's or the WIV's actions in the early days of the pandemic in a good light. Why choose not to share valuable information on SARS-like coronaviruses with the world? Why not explain your projects and proposals and give scientists access to the unpublished virus sequences in your databases?

For whatever reason, they chose crisis-management mode instead. The WIV went into lockdown. Databases were taken offline. Daszak launched his preemptive campaign to prevent anyone from looking behind the curtain. And EcoHealth and the NIH tried hard to keep the details of their collaboration private.

Congressional inquiries focusing on Dr. Fauci and the NIH's decisions to fund unnecessarily risky research by a lab in Wuhan are probably forthcoming if, as appears increasingly likely, Republicans take control of Congress after the 2022 midterms. While it's important to understand how the NIH came to use such poor judgment in its dealings with EcoHealth Alliance, that won't tell us much about the WIV's research in the months leading up to the pandemic, especially since China is not likely to open its books. Answers are more likely to lie in the records of EcoHealth Alliance. Republicans and Democrats alike should be eager to find them.

Wuhan Institute of Virology
A photo shows security personnel outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on February 3 2021. EcoHealth has worked with the institute to study bat coronaviruses. Hector Retamal/AFP / Getty