On January 31, 2020, an infectious-disease expert at the Scripps Research Translational Institute named Kristian Anderson called Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to relay some alarming news. Anderson and his colleagues had been investigating the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and thought it showed signs of having been manipulated in a laboratory. In a later email to Fauci, he wrote, “Some of the features (potentially) look engineered.”
Fauci immediately arranged a conference call for the next day. It included not just Fauci and Anderson, but Fauci’s boss, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, as well as experts in Britain and elsewhere. “It was a very productive back-and-forth conversation where some on the call felt it could possibly be an engineered virus,” Fauci later told USA Today writer Alison Young. It was scary enough if a naturally occurring virus had jumped from animals to humans (as most viral pathogens do). The notion that it might instead be a lab experiment gone awry was deeply ominous.
Three days later, everything had changed. In a February 4 email to a group of scientists advising the White House, Andersen wrote that “the data conclusively show” that the virus had not been manipulated. In fact, he called that idea one of the “main crackpot theories going around at the moment.” Almost overnight, top figures in virology research and in the public-health establishment went from being worried the virus might be man-made to dismissing that possibility as a “conspiracy theory.”
What were the data that so persuasively convinced Andersen, Fauci, and other experts in that February 1 meeting? We don’t know. In fact, we know about Andersen’s emails at all only because they were released under the Freedom of Information Act. News organizations, including Buzzfeed and the Intercept, along with good-government groups, have requested thousands of pages of documents related to the pandemic. Much of what little we know about our government’s handling of the lab-leak question comes from these documents.
But the emails and notes pertaining to the February meeting were almost entirely redacted by the NIH prior to being released. Page after page show mostly black bars covering the text. Mind you, these are not FBI or CIA investigations where disclosure might reveal sources and methods. What part of public health requires this level of secrecy?
Following the February pivot, top scientists and public officials worked hard to downplay the lab-leak hypothesis and to demonize anyone who raised the question. Nonetheless, a small but growing number of experts argued that the possibility should be investigated. Given the lab’s location, suspicion naturally centered on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As I wrote In Commentary’s July/August 2021, issue, if the virus—whether manmade or natural—did escape the lab, “it would mean the pandemic was arguably the worst man-made disaster in history.”
Understanding the origin of that disaster was a vital question in the early days of the pandemic. It is even more important today. If deadly pathogens are spilling out of virology labs, that’s an ongoing threat. The next pandemic could be exponentially worse. But instead of confronting the issue with transparency, U.S. officials—and too many public health experts—have responded to questions about COVID-19’s origins with a mix of secrecy, delay, and obfuscation.
To be clear, thousands of federal, state, and local public health officials have done heroic work in this pandemic; we owe them a great debt. This column is not about them. Here I am focusing on a small group of people involved in high-level virology research and on the government officials who interact with them.
The eye of the controversy hovers over Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that raises and distributes grant money to virus researchers around the world. Not long after that February meeting, Daszak helped organize a group of prominent virologists who published a letter about the lab-leak question in the Lancet medical journal. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the letter stated. But Daszak had a huge undisclosed conflict of interest: The EcoHealth Alliance has a history of funding research at the suspect Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak’s harsh condemnations of the lab-leak theory could be read as attempts to shift attention away from research his own organization might have funded.
Daszak denies that EcoHealth Alliance has backed “gain-of-function” studies (in which researchers manipulate viruses to make them more infectious) at WIV. In a testy exchange with Senator Rand Paul in July, Fauci also denied that his agency has funded such research at the Wuhan lab. But in September 2021, the NIH belatedly released an EcoHealth progress report detailing just such a program. The report is a stunner. It shows how grants from Fauci’s agency—funneled to WIV through EcoHealth—funded an extensive program to collect potentially dangerous viruses from bats and other animals in China. Some of these viruses were to be modified and then injected into “humanized” mice—exactly the kind of research Fauci denied funding. (Fauci defenders say his definition of “gain-of-function” may be narrower than the one other scientists use.)
The EcoHealth report covered research conducted back in 2017 and 2018. Fortunately, the viruses mentioned in it aren’t very similar to SARS-CoV-2, so they are unlikely to have been precursors to COVID-19. But there are questions. Why is the report dated September 2020 when it should have been submitted in 2018? The Intercept speculates that an earlier version might have been pulled back for revision and resubmitted. If so, what was changed? And why did it sit on the NIH shelves for another full year before the agency finally released it under FOIA?
Then, another bombshell dropped. An anonymous source gave the online COVID-19 research group DRASTIC a document outlining an EcoHealth proposal for a different gain-of-function project. This proposal was directed to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The document shocked virologists because it proposed tasking the Wuhan lab with exactly the kind of genetic manipulation (involving bat-virus “furin cleavage sites”) that some experts believe could have made SARS-CoV-2 more virulent.
In the end, DARPA declined to fund the study, though it’s unclear whether such work might have proceeded with a different source of funding. But the fact that WIV and EcoHealth had even discussed such a plan alarmed other researchers. Biologist Jesse Bloom of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center told the Atlantic that he was “stunned” by the proposal. “The fact that it kind of came to light under a leak after all of this discussion,” he added, “to me that’s just not transparent and honest.”
It’s possible that there are benign explanations for all this secrecy and apparent deceit. It’s also possible a natural source for SARS-CoV-2 will be found, rendering our lab-leak fears less urgent. Recently, researchers reported finding three viruses somewhat similar to SARS-CoV-2 in bats in Laos. That’s not proof of a natural origin for the disease, but it could be a step in that direction. The jury remains out.
But what isn’t possible is that Fauci, Daszak, and other Big Virology insiders simply forgot about their long history of pursuing gain-of-function research with the Wuhan Institute. When some scientists asked whether WIV researchers might have modified the virus’s furin cleavage site, Daszak accused them of being conspiracy theorists. He didn’t mention that his nonprofit had proposed doing that very thing. While Fauci was angrily rejecting the notion that the NIH funded gain-of-function research, his agency was shamelessly stalling FOIA requests for documents detailing such funding. What’s the big secret? And what really happened in that February 1 meeting, anyway?
I’ve spent a good portion of my career investigating and debunking conspiracy theories, including the idea that 9/11 was an “inside job.” I think such baseless theories are corrosive to our democracy. But if our public officials want us to trust them, they need to be transparent. The best way to keep people from believing in conspiracy theories is to stop acting as if you’ve got something to hide.
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