News & Politics

Fauci's Claim That the NIH Never Funded Gain-of-Function Research at the Wuhan Lab Has Some Serious Holes

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is the archnemesis of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Paul attends Senate hearings related to COVID-19. Paul arrives prepared, and he is a medical doctor. He also has a libertarian streak that makes him question everything, which is admirable. During the hearing, Paul took Dr. Fauci to task based on the investigative journalism of Nicholas Wade.

Wade worked in staff and editorial positions for the journals Nature and Science. Beginning in 1982, he was a science writer for The New York Times. He retired in 2012 but continued to freelance for his former employer, publishing his last article for the Times in March of this year. On May 2, 2021, he wrote an extensive and thoroughly researched piece on Medium, outlining the evidence for the two primary theories of the origins of COVID-19. It seems odd that the Times didn’t publish it. His excellent piece might have been relegated to the fate of most Medium posts if Fox News Host Tucker Carlson had not covered it on Tucker Carlson Tonight on May 10.

Wade thoroughly discussed the evidence for both the lab leak hypothesis and a natural emergence. Part of what he included was the path through which the NIH and NIAID, the latter of which is led by Fauci, funded gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In some cases, it was funded through a contractor, Eco Health Alliance, run by Dr. Peter Daszak, who then subcontracted it to Dr. Zheng-li Shi. Shi, known as the “Bat Lady” at the Wuhan Institute.

The first study I can find is from 2015, published in Nature. Both Dr. Shi and her mentor, Dr. Ralph Baric (University of North Carolina), are listed as authors. It discusses the creation of a “chimeric virus.” The virus the team started with was a “SARS-like” coronavirus that was circulating in horseshoe bats in China. It was not infecting humans at that time. They joined it with the backbone of a mouse-adapted SARS virus and successfully infected human airway cells using the new virus. This is called gain-of-function research.

The abstract notes that no vaccine or monoclonal antibody treatment was effective, and neither was any therapeutic for SARS when mice were infected with the new virus. The Wuhan lab had created a virus for which there was no available treatment in a lab known for its poor security protocols.

Most interesting is the note in the Acknowledgements section of the study. During the Senate hearing, Paul directly asked Fauci about supporting gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. Fauci responded: “Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect. The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology… We do not send money now to the Wuhan Virology Institute.”

Yet the study claims the following (emphasis mine):

Research in this manuscript was supported by grants from the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease and the National Institute of Aging of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) under awards U19AI109761 (R.S.B.), U19AI107810 (R.S.B.), AI085524 (W.A.M.), F32AI102561 (V.D.M.) and K99AG049092 (V.D.M.), and by the National Natural Science Foundation of China awards 81290341 (Z.-L.S.) and 31470260 (X.-Y.G.), and by USAID-EPT-PREDICT funding from EcoHealth Alliance (Z.-L.S.). Human airway epithelial cultures were supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease of the NIH under award NIH DK065988 (S.H.R.). We also thank M.T. Ferris (Dept. of Genetics, University of North Carolina) for the reviewing of statistical approaches and C.T. Tseng (Dept. of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Texas Medical Branch) for providing Calu-3 cells. Experiments with the full-length and chimeric SHC014 recombinant viruses were initiated and performed before the GOF research funding pause and have since been reviewed and approved for continued study by the NIH. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

So, the study was funded by Dr. Fauci’s division, the NIAID; Dr. Richard Hodes’ division, the NIA; and EcoHealth Alliance using money from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) at the outset. When the Obama administration placed the moratorium on gain-of-function research in 2014, the study was reviewed and permitted to continue by the NIH. So Fauci saying the agency never funded gain-of-function research is false.

They funded it through Dr. Baric, and the Wuhan lab did some of the work. Since the virus was sourced in China, it does not seem rational to have sent it to North Carolina if scientists were unsure as to its infectious capability. Whatever work Baric was doing in North Carolina was in support of a gain-of-function study in Wuhan. The study was published in November of 2015.

Not only did the NIH begin funding it before the moratorium, but they also approved a gain-of-function study to continue after the pause. The research team felt this was an important detail to include. That would likely have left Fauci, Hodes, and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins in a position to make decisions on that approval. A senior staff member ostensibly should have had the final say on whether or not research met the criteria for an exception to the moratorium.

After that study, it appears the NIAID no longer directly funded Dr. Shi, and I cannot locate another study with Dr. Ralph Baric listed as an author. I did find a study in the Journal of Virology from 2016 that lists Dr. Shi and Dr. Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance. Daszak had been funded by USAID previously. In the funding section of the study it states (emphasis mine):

FUNDING INFORMATION National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) provided funding to Zheng-Li Shi under grant numbers 81290341 and 31321001. Minister of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China provided funding to Zheng-Li Shi under grant numbers 2014ZX10004001-003 and 2013FY113500. HHS | National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided funding to Peter Daszak and Zheng-Li Shi under grant number NIAID R01AI110964. National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) provided funding to Lin-Fa Wang under grant number NRF2012NRF-CRP001- 056. R

Daszak’s grant from NIAID began in 2014 and continues through 2025 and, in part, has funded Dr. Shi’s research since May of 2015. While the study published in 2016 does not reference chimeric viruses, several subsequent studies where Shi is an author appear to be modifying viruses. The studies are not explicit about creating a chimeric virus, but they discuss adding proteins and altering features. Someone with a much deeper understanding of virology would need to evaluate her work. But it is clear in the financial tracking that Erik J. Stemmy at the NIH is the program officer in charge of Daszak’s grant, and government accounting shows part of that grant being paid to the Wuhan lab.

Shi continued to study SHC014, the virus that the spike protein used in the chimeric study published in 2015 comes from, as well as WIV1 and WIV16. The studies say these viruses are highly similar to SARS-CoV1. The chimeric virus was named SHC014-MA15. In a strange author correction on the 2015 study in May of 2020, we learn: “In the version of this article initially published, the sequence of the mouse adapted SHC015-MA15 virus had not been deposited in GenBank. The sequence has now been deposited in GenBank under accession number MT308984.”

Looking at GenBank, it seems there is a typo. Indeed, SHC014-MA15, the chimeric virus, did not have the sequence uploaded until nearly five years after the study was published. This seems odd after reviewing several other studies that note the uploading of the virus sequence with the associated GenBank number in the paper. Again, this is something for someone much smarter than me to assess.

The last payment to the Wuhan lab through the NIH grant to Daszak was on May 31, 2019. As Tucker Carlson noted, Dr. Daszak was proudly discussing the creation of chimeric viruses in December of 2019:

Coronavirus is a pretty good… You can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily. It’s spike protein, spike protein drives a lot of what happens with the coronavirus, zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence, build the protein. And we worked with Ralph Barrack [sp. Baric] at UNC to do this. Insert into a backbone of another virus and then do some work in the lab.

When COVID-19 emerged just weeks later, Daszak was one of the most vocal and prolific voices saying the lab leak hypothesis was impossible. He was also the only representative from the West that the Chinese would accept as part of the WHO team investigating the virus’s origins. This investigation should not end with Paul’s questioning. It should begin anew with subpoenas for all communications going back to the original NIH grant approvals given to Baric and Daszak.