The recent spats between Dr. Anthony Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) about how the coronavirus pandemic started made for good television. The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases wagged his finger at a United States senator and called him a liar. Dr. Fauci rejected the premise of tough, evidence-based questions about our government’s support of risky “gain-of-function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) on his watch.
While everyone in Washington loves a good debate, we need less finger wagging and more facts.
The public deserves access to documents from both the Chinese government and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Communist China’s secrecy is to be expected, of course, but the U.S. government ought to be more transparent and stop hiding what it knows about the virus research in Wuhan.
Public health experts agree that to stop the next pandemic, we must find out how the COVID-19 virus—which has killed more than 4 million people worldwide and 600,000 Americans—began in China. Some argue the pandemic started because of a natural virus spillover from bats or other animals to humans, while others posit that it could have started through a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, where scientists have been collecting and studying similar viruses for years.
Members of both the House and Senate have sent multiple requests to the NIH demanding to see documents about the money American taxpayers provided to the virus lab in Wuhan, and to view reports that explain specifics about this research. By refusing to release these documents, Dr. Fauci and other NIH officials have made it impossible to learn what the NIH has funded, and what it knows about research at Wuhan.
House members recently sent the NIH a second letter, demanding transparency on documents requested months ago about funding and reports of this research at the WIV. Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board reiterated its call for transparency on the WIV’s risky gain-of-function research.
In a recent editorial, Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs laid out what we know: the NIH funded U.S. and Chinese scientists to collect SARS viruses and study them at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As Dr. Sachs explained, this research “included the creation of chimeric genetic recombinants of SARS-like viruses to study their capacity to infect human cells and to cause disease.” In short, American taxpayers funded research at the WIV that many scientists call “gain of function,” meaning it can increase the ability of an animal virus to infect and harm humans. Dr. Sachs leads a commission by a medical journal called The Lancet to investigate how the pandemic began.
Last year, Newsweek reported that Dr. Fauci provided grant money that ended up supporting risky research at the WIV. In March, the Washington Post called for an independent investigation into how the pandemic started, pointing out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had done gain-of-function experiments and had been working on viruses very similar to COVID-19. And last April, Politico reported that former acting CIA director Michael Morell noted that if the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab, the U.S. would shoulder some of the blame since it funded research at that lab through government grants from 2014 to 2019.
The NIH released thousands of pages of internal documents that the Washington Post and Buzzfeed sought through the Freedom of Information Act. But the agency heavily redacted these documents, as the government often does to hide embarrassing details.
Yet NIH director Francis Collins is on record demanding transparency from others. “I do think we should be calling on China to make an expert-driven transparent investigation possible, because there are way too many unanswered questions,” he told the Washington Post. Dr. Collins also told the Post that the Wuhan researchers need to open their lab notebooks to be examined by outside experts. “If they really want to be exonerated from this claim of culpability, then they have got to be transparent.”
Agreed, but the NIH should be transparent too. How can Dr. Collins demand that researchers in Wuhan open their lab notebooks when the institute he leads will not do the same? Does Collins think that the public is not smart enough to see this hypocrisy?
“It is in fact common knowledge in the US scientific community that NIH has indeed supported genetic recombinant research on SARS-like viruses that many scientists describe as [gain of function research],” wrote Dr. Sachs in his recent editorial. He added that the process for oversight of this research is weak, limiting access for outside experts to inspect virus labs, review safety reports and scrutinize funding approvals.
“All laboratory notebooks and other relevant information should be opened by the Chinese and U.S. scientists working on this project for detailed scrutiny by independent experts,” Dr. Sachs wrote.
To get to the bottom of how this pandemic—which has demolished economies and destroyed millions of lives—began, we cannot rely on half measures and debates driven by politics rather than facts.
Americans funded research in Wuhan. We have a right to know what we paid for and whether it went horribly wrong. The Chinese government needs to be more transparent and cooperate with world leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in those labs. And Americans need to hold our own government accountable to an even higher standard of transparency.
Jason Foster is Founder & President of Empower Oversight Whistleblowers & Research, and former Chief Investigative Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.