The Wuhan Lab and the Virus: The Dr. Fauci, Rand Paul Debate Fact-Checked and Explained

Rand Paul Anthony Fauci COVID-19 Vaccines Biden
The Wuhan lab and the virus. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in Washington, D.C. on March 23, 2021. Senator Paul's debate with Dr. Fauci, fact-checked and explained Greg Nash/Getty

Senator Rand Paul went on the attack in the Senate chambers earlier this week over the origins of the coronavirus that caused the current pandemic. In his questioning of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the senator raised the issue of whether the coronavirus jumped from animals to humans naturally (as coronaviruses tend to do) or was the result of experiments in which scientists took natural viruses, made them more deadly or infectious or both (which scientists all over the world do), and then somehow allowed it to escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Senator Paul didn't directly accuse Dr. Fauci of engineering the pandemic, but that seemed at times to be his implication; it's a line of questioning that appeared to play to conspiracy theories that circulate on the internet. Although Dr. Fauci has had plenty of practice fending off Senator Paul's attacks in past encounters, this exchange seemed to unnerve him.

One potential reason for Dr. Fauci's discomfort is that the prospect of a virus accidently being released from a lab and starting a pandemic is entirely plausible—so plausible, in fact, that scientists have warned about it for years.

Scientists in laboratories all over the world have for the past decade been collecting dangerous viruses and making them even more dangerous by performing "gain-of-function" experiments on them—manipulating the viruses to make them more infectious or deadly or both. The work is undertaken for the best of intentions—to understand and anticipate future pandemic viruses that could arise in nature—and much of this work has been done in the U.S. and abroad with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Dr. Fauci leads.

Some scientists who study pandemic viruses have lobbied the NIH to curb GOF research, but the NIH doesn't control all of it: much takes place in labs around the world, including at the Wuhan Institute. What's needed is thorough accounting of what gain-of-function work is currently going on in labs in the U.S. and everywhere else, as well as a public discussion of how to make sure that dangerous viruses don't escape. Lab accidents occur all too often, so it's no wonder that suspicions of lab accidents arise during a pandemic.

To say that a lab accident could start a pandemic is much different, of course, than claiming that a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute did start this particular pandemic. There is no proof that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab in Wuhan or anywhere else.

The reaction of most scientists to the lab-origin theories has been to close ranks and defend their colleagues in China and elsewhere. To be sure, the drum-beat of blame towards China for starting the epidemic, which has a significant element of racism and xenophobia, is deplorable. But still, it's striking that scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere haven't protested China's lack of transparency more forcefully. That may be changing, however. On May 14, 18 scientists penned a letter in the journal Science that calls for a further investigation. That's good news, because until there's evidence that strongly discounts the lab-origin theory—or irrefutable evidence of a natural origin—the conspiracy theories will continue to undermine confidence in the legitimate work that scientists do.

So, how accurate were the statements Sen. Paul and Dr. Fauci offered in their exchange?

Dr. Anthony Fauci During a Senate Hearing
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director at the National Institute Of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a hearing with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on the Covid-19 response, on Capitol Hill on March 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Fauci has dismissed the idea he was responsible for helping to create COVID-19. Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

Senator Paul: Dr. Fauci, we don't know if the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally, but we should want to know. Three million people have died in this pandemic and that should call us to explore all possibilities.

True.

Paul: Instead, government authorities, self-interested in continuing gain-of-function research, say there's nothing to see here.

There may be some truth to the assertion of self-interest. The international community of virologists is relatively small, and they tend to know one another. Peter Daszak, head of EcoHealth Alliance, which has been the main conduit for NIH research funds on coronaviruses to the Wuhan lab in China, and has worked closely with scientists in China, has been criticized for having a conflict of interest in his role as a member of the World Health Organization team that investigated the origins of SARS-CoV-2. More widely, scientists who do GOF research may be more confident about the safety of their work than the long history of lab accidents would suggest. Authorities at the NIH and elsewhere have tended to side with the natural-origin theory, the most salient counter-example being Robert Redfield, who cast his lot in with the GOF crowd shortly after stepping down as the head of the Centers for Disease Control. But it would stretch credulity to imply any significant monetary self-interest.

Paul: To arrive at the truth, the U.S. government should admit that the Wuhan Virology Institute was experimenting to enhance the coronavirus' ability to infect humans.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, under the direction of Dr. Shi Zengli, was clearly doing GOF experiments before the pandemic arose. But GOF work is now commonplace. The real scandal is not that the Wuhan Institute was doing GOF work, it's that everyone does it. That, and not the Wuhan lab origin theory, is what we should all be arguing about.

Paul: For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the U.S., has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zeng-li of the Wuhan Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create superviruses. This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH. The collaboration between the US and the Wuhan Institute continues. Drs. Baric and Shi worked together to insert bat virus spike protein into the backbone of the deadly SARS virus, and then used this man-made supervirus to infect human airway cells.

Baric and Shi did indeed collaborate on at least one NIH-funded project that could arguably be called GOF research (more on that below), more or less as Senator Paul described (though it was all done in cell cultures). However, the work on the actual SARS virus was done in Baric's lab in North Carolina, not in the Wuhan lab. There was no NIH-funded supervirus being cooked up in Wuhan.

The remark about Baric "sharing discoveries" with Shi is problematic in two ways. First, there's nothing sinister about it. Scientists share their discoveries all the time—that's how science works. If Baric had been doing classified work in an underground bunker for the Department of Defense and smuggled it to Shi, that would be reprehensible, but Baric's work was unclassified. Second, Paul's presumption that the flow of information went only one way, from Baric to Shi, ignores the fact that Shi is one of the most highly-respected virologists in the world.

There's also nothing particularly worrying about scientists in the U.S. collaborating with their peers in Wuhan. The Wuhan Institute has the biggest collection of bat coronaviruses in the world—U.S. scientists would be foolish not to collaborate with them.

Anthony Fauci: The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Senator Paul's claim that GOF research collaborations between the U.S. and China continue is almost certainly false. But before the pandemic year, the NIH had awarded a large grant to EcoHealth that would have funded GOF research ("We will use [spike] protein sequence data, infectious clone technology, in vitro and in vivo infection experiments and analysis of receptor binding to test the hypothesis that % divergence thresholds in [spike] protein sequences predict spillover potential."). It's unclear what portion of that work would have been performed in Wuhan, if any. In any case, the work never got started: shortly after the pandemic broke, the Trump Administration put the kibosh on it.

Paul: Do you fund Dr. Baric's gain-of-function research?

Fauci: Dr. Baric is not doing gain-of-function research, and if it is, it's according to the guidelines and it is being conducted in North Carolina not China.

Fauci is correct. In 2017, NIH lifted its moratorium on GOF research and issued guidelines under which such work could continue, on a case-by-case basis after review by a committee. However, the identity of the reviewers and their deliberations are kept secret. Lipsitch and Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, proposed revisions to bring greater transparency.

Paul: You don't think inserting a bat-virus spike protein that [Baric] got from the Wuhan Institute into the SARS virus is gain-of-function? You would be in a minority because at least two scientists have signed a statement from the Cambridge Working Group saying that it is gain-of-function.

False, says Marc Lipsitch, the Harvard epidemiologist and one of the original members of the Cambridge Working Group. "It is just a fabrication to say we have made any statement as a group about work in Wuhan."

Fauci: Well, it is not. If you look at the grant and you look at the progress reports, it is not gain-of-function, despite the fact that people tweet that and write about it.

In an interview last year, Baric maintained that some work that involves enhancing viruses in the lab turns out to produce viruses that are actually less viable than what experimenters started with, so they haven't necessarily "gained" any "function." This is probably what Dr. Fauci is referring to.

Paul: "...under your tutelage, we were sending [funds] through EcoHealth.... to the Wuhan Institute..."

Fauci: Let me explain to you why that was done. The SARS-CoV-1 originated in bats in China. It would have been irresponsible of us if we did not investigate the bat viruses and the serology to see who might have been infected in China.

Investigating, for the purpose of understanding potential pandemic viruses and how to prepare for them, is the guiding purpose of research. Knowing how dangerous bat coronaviruses like SARS-Cov-2 can be, it's hard to argue that scientists should just ignore them. The question is not whether or not to study them. The question is, are current study methods safe? Do they yield benefits that justify the risk?

Paul: Or perhaps it would have been possible to send [the research] to the Chinese government that we may not be able to trust with this knowledge and with these incredibly dangerous viruses.

The question presumes that U.S. scientists know more than Chinese scientists about dangerous viruses, which is false.

Paul: Government defenders of gain-of-function, such as yourself, say that COVID-19 mutations were random and not designed by man. But interestingly, the technique that Dr. Baric developed forces mutations by serial passage through cell culture, so that the mutations appear to be natural. In fact, Dr. Baric named the technique the "no see'm" technique because the mutations appear naturally. [Nicholson] Baker in New York magazine said, "nobody would know if the virus had been fabricated in a laboratory or grown in nature."

Whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus shows signs of having been manipulated, or whether it is even possible to manipulate the virus in a lab without leaving telltale signs, is the subject of debate among scientists. Shortly after the pandemic broke out, Kristian Anderson of Scripps wrote the canonical article arguing that the virus most likely originated in nature, but it has been criticized for being inconclusive, most recently in journalist Nicholas Wade's opus. But it's not clear that "no see'm" techniques—such as passing a virus through a succession of animals—would truly be undetectable. In interviews last year, Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at University of California, Davis, told Newsweek that in fact forensic geneticists could probably tell if a virus were manipulated in this way. As far as I know, no such analysis has turned up any evidence one way or the other.

Paul: Government authorities in the U.S., including yourself, unequivocally deny that COVID-19 could have escaped a lab.

False. Many government authorities, including Dr. Fauci and his boss, NIH head Francis Collins, have come out in favor of a thorough investigation of the origins of the coronavirus. So has the U.S. State Department.

Paul: Dr. Shi in Wuhan... wondered, could this new virus have come from her own laboratories? She checked her records... and found no matches. 'That really took a load off my mind, I hadn't slept for days.' The director of gain-of-function research at Wuhan lab couldn't sleep because she was terrified that it might be in her lab.

The senator is quoting from a profile of Shi in Scientific American.

Paul: Dr. Baric, an advocate of gain-of-function research.... responded, "Can you rule out a lab escape? The answer in this case is probably not."

This is what Baric told New York magazine's Nicholson Baker. Incidentally, Baric signed the letter in Science calling for further investigation of the lab-leak theory.

Dr. Fauci has been a favorite target of Republicans over just about every aspect of the pandemic response, including guidance on wearing masks, discredited COVID-19 treatments like hydroxychloroquine and China's alleged cover-up. Sen. Rand's aggressive questioning on the lab-origin theory generated heat, but little light. Which may have been the point.