Sen. Rand Paul Grills Dr. Fauci on NIH Grants and Wuhan Institute of Virology | Citizens Against Government Waste

Sen. Rand Paul Grills Dr. Fauci on NIH Grants and Wuhan Institute of Virology

The WasteWatcher

The need for increased oversight in how federal funding is spent for health research was made very clear during a Tuesday, May 11, 2021 Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing when fireworks erupted between Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), M.D. and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, M.D., an agency within the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  The hearing, “An Update from Federal Officials on Efforts to Combat COVID-19,” also included Chief Science Officer of the COVID Response Team David Kessler, M.D. at the Department of Health and Human Services; Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Director Peter Marks, MD, PhD, at the Food and Drug Administration; and, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH. All four gave opening statements, which can be found on the HELP committee’s website.

Sen. Paul began his round of questioning by asking Dr. Fauci about a controversial type of research called “gain-of-function” in viruses, which enhances a virus’s capabilities.  With coronaviruses, the research interest is in the spike proteins, which look like crowns – thus the name corona – that protrude out of the virus’s spherical surface.  Here is part of what Sen. Paul said:

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

Instead, government authorities, self-interested in continuing gain-of-function research, say there's nothing to see here.  Gain-of-function research, as you know, is juicing up naturally occurring animal viruses to infect humans.  To arrive at the truth, the U.S. government should admit that the Wuhan Virology Institute was experimenting to enhance the coronavirus's ability to infect humans.

Juicing up super viruses is not new.  Scientists in the U.S. have long known how to mutate animal viruses to infect humans.  For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the U.S., has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create super viruses.  This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH.

The collaboration between the U.S. and the Wuhan Virology Institute continues.  Doctors Baric and Shi work together to insert bat virus spike protein into the backbone of the deadly SARS virus, and then use this man-made super virus to infect human airway cells.  Think about that for a moment.  The SARS virus had a 15 percent mortality. We're fighting a pandemic that has about a 1 percent mortality.  Can you imagine if a SARS virus that's been juiced up and had viral proteins added to it to the spike protein if that were released accidentally?

Dr. Fauci, do you still [support NIH funding] of the lab in Wuhan?”

Dr. Fauci replied:

“Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely -- entirely and completely incorrect that the NIH has not never and does not now fund gain of function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

The entire exchange is worth listening to (at 1.11.27) and Dr. Fauci gives some evasive, and contradictive answers, raising more questions about NIH’s grants and their involvement with “juicing” up viruses.

Sen. Paul raises similar concerns and questions from a May 2, 2021 expose by Nicholas Wade in Medium, “Origin of Covid – Following the Clues.”  Wade, who is a science writer and has worked at Nature, Science, and The New York Times, wrote, “The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives the world over for more than a year.  Its death toll will soon reach three million people.  Yet the origin of pandemic remains uncertain: the political agendas of governments and scientists have generated thick clouds of obfuscation, which the mainstream press seems helpless to dispel.”

Wade reiterated the two theories on where the virus came from, provides information on why each one is credible, and then asks which one has the better explanation with the available facts.  He said there is no direct evidence for either theory.  He says, “I have only clues, not conclusions, to offer.  But those clues point in a specific direction.  And having inferred that direction, I’m going to delineate some of the strands in this tangled skein of disaster.” 

The first theory was reported in early December 2019 when the COVID-19 illness was first seen.  The new coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2 or SARS2, broke out in China and the theory was it had occurred naturally.  Chinese authorities said that many COVID cases occurred in a wet market, where exotic animals are sold for their meat.  The new coronavirus behaved like the 2002 SARS1 and the 2012 MERS viruses that also started with a bat virus, had intermediary mammalian hosts, and then jumped to humans.  The genetic coding of the SARS2 showed it to a beta-coronavirus, as are the SARS1 and MERS viruses.

The second theory came about because the city of Wuhan is also where the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is located and is known for their research on coronaviruses.  Since it was possible that the SARS2 virus could have escaped from the lab, that theory could not be ruled out and many top scientists and health officials believe it was.  Former CDC Director Robert Redfield told CNN on March 26, 2021 that the most likely cause of the epidemic was a laboratory.  Other scientists, listed at the end of Wade’s article, have done research that indicates it is likely a lab creation.

After all, Wade said it is not unheard of that viruses escape from some of the best-run laboratories.  A January 22, 2017 article in Nature noted that the following issues with safety in Chinese labs:  “The SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey.  Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, says that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and he questions how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy.”  These comments were made at the time that the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment certified the WIV’s biosafety level (BSL)-4 viral research lab.  These labs have the “highest level of biosafety.  This level is used for the diagnosis of exotic agents such as the Ebola virus that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease, which may be transmitted by the aerosol route and for which there is no vaccine or therapy.”  The labs must have a dedicated supply and exhaust of air;  personnel must change clothing before entering and showering after exiting; wear appropriate protective equipment; and, all materials must be decontaminated before exiting.  When U.S. State Department inspectors visited the BSL-4 lab in 2018, they concluded it had a serious shortage of properly trained technicians and investigators.

Wade also discussed the controversial research called gain-of-function where scientists manipulate a virus’s genes to increase their virulence and transmissibility supposedly to better understand how close an animal virus might be getting to move to humans and being able to plan better for disease control.

He pointed out the connections among several scientists doing corona virus research in the U.S. and how in early 2020 “public and media perceptions were shaped in favor of the natural emergence scenario” by some issuing statements criticizing any ideas that the SARS2 virus could have been manipulated in a lab.  Wade said the statements were not examined as critically as they should have been and were more political than scientific in nature.  One of these statements was printed in the February 19 Lancet, led by Dr. Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance.  Yet Dr. Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance had a grant from the NIAID to do gain-of-function research with WIV’s top researcher on bat viruses, Dr. Shi Zheng-li, called “the bat lady.”  If his organization had funded coronavirus research at the WIV and if the SARS2 virus had escaped from that lab, Daszak would be “potentially culpable.”

WIV’s Dr. Shi also worked with Ralph S. Baric, PhD., a coronavirus expert researcher at the University of North Carolina.  They “focused on enhancing the ability of bat viruses to attack humans so as to ‘examine the emergence potential (that is, the potential to infect humans) of circulating bat CoVs [coronaviruses].’”  Dr. Shi also admits in her publications she has done gain-of-function research in much lower safety level labs, BSL-3, and even BSL-2, which has minimal safety requirements.

In his questioning of Dr. Fauci, Sen. Paul asked if he funds Baric’s gain-of-function research and Fauci replied, “Dr. Baric does - not doing gain of function research.  And if it is, is according to the guidelines, and it is being conducted in North Carolina, not in China.”

Mr. Wade’s column, while technical, is worth reading.  He explains complex subjects so a layperson can read them and understand how the coronavirus may have come into being and why more investigations are needed to find the answer of how it originated.  That information is essential to preventing, treating, and curing any similar virus.

Toward the end of Sen. Paul’s allotted time to ask questions of witnesses, he asked Dr. Fauci:

So, do you still support sending money to the Wuhan Virology Institute?

FAUCI: We do not send money now to the Wuhan Virology Institute.

PAUL: Do you support sending money?  We did under your tutelage.  We were sending it through Eco-Health.  It was a sub agency and a sub grant. Do you support that the money from NIH that was going 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 bad viruses and the serology to see who might have been infected.”

If anything, the questions Sen. Paul asked of Dr. Fauci raised more uncertainties than answers, and whether NIAID grants were funding, either directly or not, activities at the WIV in China.  Sen. Paul said, “You’re allowing super viruses to be created with a 15 percent mortality. It's very dangerous and becomes a huge mistake to share this with China.  And it's a huge mistake to allow this to continue in the United States.  And we should be very careful to investigate where this virus came from.”  According to Sen. Rand, gain-of-function research is being done at 11 laboratories in the U.S.

On Friday, May 14, 2021, the New York Post reported that NIH Director Francis Collins stated Sen. Paul was, “spreading misinformation” and that they “never approved any grant that would have supported gain-of-function research on dangerous coronaviruses to see if they could be more transmissible or lethal for individuals in the human species.”  He also said while it would have been appropriate for NIH to fund Chinese research into bat coronaviruses because of the SARS and MERS epidemics, they cannot  “absolutely prevent somebody who has an intention of deceiving us about how they use the funds.”  In April 2020, Newsweek reported that NIH had funded a two-phase research project at WIV, the first of which started in 2014 on bat viruses and concluded in 2019, with  a budget of $3.7 million.  The second, run by EcoHealth Alliance, included some gain-of-function research.  Politico reported in April 2020 that NIH abruptly cut off funding for the project.

At least Sen. Paul and Fauci agreed on one thing.  Dr. Fauci said, “I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from.  But again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology no matter how many times you say it.”

It is time for Congress to conduct more oversight hearings to learn if NIH and NIAID have been funding gain-of-function research, especially overseas, and whether the risk of doing so provides clear benefits in preventing pandemics.  Nicolas Wade said, “let the reckoning begin” after he wrote that the World Health Organization visit in February demonstrated that the “Chinese had no evidence to offer the commission in support of the natural emergence theory.”  It is therefore also time for more researchers to step forward and study the SARS2 virus’s origin so that the world knows how and why this occurred and a similar outbreak can be prevented in the future.