Anthony Fauci denies that his U.S. agency’s grant to study bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology could have led to Covid-19, but the grant recipient, EcoHealth Alliance, still has not released records of the viruses it kept at the lab. Available records reveal EcoHealth had plans to experiment on many unknown viruses, with the Chinese managing virus identification and access to the research.
Fauci cannot, as he does, say definitively that his agency’s grant did not lead to SARS-CoV-2 without the full, original laboratory records for the grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
The National Institutes of Health is still asking for some lab records from EcoHealth, but EcoHealth has said it does not have access to them, as the records were created by and retained by Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). China has blocked investigators from inspecting all of the WIV’s laboratory records and databases, including a key database taken offline months before the Covid outbreak, and has acknowledged destroying some lab samples of coronaviruses.
The lack of lab records does not prove Fauci’s agency funded the creation of Covid-19. Scientists have not released a determination of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid; two leading theories are either animal crossover or a lab leak.
But Fauci knew in January 2020, before lockdowns, that his agency had failed in its oversight of EcoHealth and was lacking an important record: an annual progress report due September 30, 2019. It was eventually submitted two years late, and some suspect the report was revised from an earlier version.
Plans to Experiment with Pandora’s Box of Viruses
Discussion of the EcoHealth grant often gets bogged down in details of “gain of function,” but a lab leak of SARS-CoV-2 does not require the virus to have been manipulated. Key grant documents such as proposals and progress reports have been released due to litigation. Although they do not contain an inventory of all the viruses being studied, they reveal the huge number of unknown viruses that EcoHealth had plans to experiment on.
Virus samples would be taken not just from bat caves but also from people from around China who had unknown respiratory illnesses and had been regularly exposed to bats, according to an EcoHealth progress report for a period ending May 2019.
New human viruses were also offered to EcoHealth by five Chinese medical institutes, including the WIV. In an Oct. 31, 2018, letter of support for the grant, the WIV’s director states that “To assist in this study, we will provide participating laboratories in China with human samples, both new and archived, and support research in bat coronaviruses.”
A Nov. 1, 2018, letter from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences makes the same offer, as do undated letters from the Guangdong Centers for Disease Control, the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Yunnan Institute of Endemic Diseases Control and Prevention. These cities are more than 1,000 miles apart, so would have sourced viruses from a large area. One of several close relatives to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered in Yunnan.
What records can EcoHealth provide on viruses it took from the above sources?
Fauci’s Defense Is Leaky
Despite EcoHealth failing to provide full lab records that would back up this claim, Fauci argues it’s “impossible” his grant recipient studied a virus that could have become SARS-CoV-2 and “unconscionable” to even consider that gain-of-function research may have created the virus.
Fauci told George Stephanopoulos in October:
There’s all of this concern about what’s gain of function or what’s not, with the implication that that research led to SARS-CoV-2, and COVID-19, which, George, unequivocally anybody that knows anything about viral biology and phylogeny of viruses know that it is molecularly impossible for those viruses that were worked on to turn into SARS-CoV-2 because they were distant enough molecularly that no matter what you did to them, they could never, ever become SARS-CoV-2.
And yet when people talk about gain of function, they make that implication which I think is unconscionable to do, to say, well, maybe that research led to SARS-CoV-2.
NIH’s new director Lawrence Tabak used a similar argument about “published” data in an October letter to the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Rep. James Comer of Kentucky:
[P]ublished genomic data demonstrate that the bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance, Inc. and subaward to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) are not and could not have become SARS-CoV-2. Both the progress report and the analysis … confirm that conclusion, as the sequences of the viruses are genetically very distant.
But both Fauci and Tabak are referring to disclosed and published data, while not acknowledging that EcoHealth has not released all its records — or that China controls some of them. Fauci and Tabak’s statements are “untruthful,” Richard H. Ebright, a Rutgers University professor of chemistry and chemical biology and a critic of gain-of-function research, told The Federalist.
“Fauci’s claim would be truthful only if revised to ‘it is molecularly impossible for the viruses that have been reported to the NIH to date to turn into SARS-CoV-2,’” Ebright added.
Misleading to Refer to ‘Published’ Data as Proof
The other flaw in NIH’s argument about “published” data is that EcoHealth was likely still identifying the viruses it had and was not ready to publish those results. It takes months to years after field collection to sequence collected virus samples, according to Ebright.
EcoHealth also would not have been ready to publish all the viruses because the grant was terminated early, in April 2020, at the Trump White House’s request. Plus, EcoHealth planned to do more sampling of viruses in the future under the grant, according to its progress report for a period ending May 2019.
As Sen. Rand Paul told Fauci at a Senate committee hearing in November:
You mislead the public by saying that the published viruses cannot be Covid. Exactly no one is alleging that… What we are saying is that this was risky type of research, gain of function research. It was risky to share this with the Chinese, and that Covid may have been created from a not-yet-revealed virus. We don’t anticipate that the Chinese are going to reveal the virus if it came from their lab. You know that, but you continue to mislead… You continue to say you trust the Chinese scientists.
Rather than address unpublished viruses, Fauci ran out the clock by addressing the precise definition of gain-of-function research — a definition he helped make so narrow that it excludes much risky research, according to The Washington Post.
Lab Leak Doesn’t Require Genetic Manipulation or Direct Funding
House Republicans are investigating what led top scientists early in the pandemic, after discussions with Fauci and then-NIH Director Francis Collins, to change their stance on whether SARS-CoV-2 looked engineered.
But even if they find the scientists thought the virus looked natural based on evidence, that does not mean a natural virus did not leak from the Wuhan lab. Not to mention that scientists can manipulate viruses without leaving any trace — maybe that was discussed by the scientists too.
Nonetheless, the WIV is a huge complex doing research of which the EcoHealth Alliance grant was only a part. Jamie Metzl, who serves on the advisory committee to the World Health Organization and pushed early in the pandemic for a fuller investigation of a lab leak, told The Federalist:
Because we have no idea what happened at the WIV … there is a real possibility that work somewhere in that institute that was not supported by NIAID funding could have sparked the pandemic. It is also possible that Chinese researchers on their own carried out work which was inspired by, but separate from, some of the work supported by NIAID funding and that this work, in one way or another, could have accidentally played a role in originating this crisis.
NIH Not Cooperating
NIH continues to be criticized for its lack of transparency. It has redacted some released emails and withheld other requested documents. It won’t provide Republican members of Congress interviews with key NIAID officials.
“The NIH could request access to all information generated with NIH support but has not done so and presumably would be refused if it did so,” according to Ebright.
Lawsuits and congressional requests are slowly revealing more information, such as how NIH officials collaborated to try to suppress theories that SARS-CoV-2 could have leaked from a lab.
Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have requested additional unpublished records from EcoHealth, but EcoHealth has ignored those requests and the congressional minority does not have subpoena power. Committee Republicans have pushed NIH to seek unpublished data from EcoHealth, but say “there is still no indication from NIH that they will do anything on this front.”
Democrats could use their subpoena power as the majority, but haven’t. Perhaps that’s because they want to protect Fauci, who represents their response to the pandemic — lockdowns, forced masking, and vaccination. They also don’t want to upset China, and nor do Republicans.
Chinese Ran Research, Controlled Access
The EcoHealth grant proposals also make clear that the project was mostly run by the Chinese, so they would have been able to cut off access to the research.
The Chinese scientists were to analyze the virus samples, do the record-keeping, and maintain the virus database. EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak’s oversight, in his own words, consisted of “semi-annual meetings with the lead investigator and assessments of compliance against all conditions of the award.”
The Chinese administered the WIV virus database, which was taken offline before the pandemic and likely contained unpublished virus sequences. Daszak also refers to China shutting down access to his colleagues in an April 2020 email to Fauci. In a separate group of emails made public this month, an EcoHealth Alliance employee confirms that China was required to approve any release of data on the viruses they were studying.
So China seems to have run the research and the access to it, and we still don’t know which viruses were studied.
Although the Trump administration ended the EcoHealth grant at the WIV, EcoHealth continues to receive NIAID funding for virus hunting and creation of chimeric, or hybrid, viruses at other labs. This kind of research continues around the world, and many scientists say there remains an urgent need for international standards for bio-risk management.