In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and his colleagues both within the federal government and in the broader scientific community appear to have coordinated their response to public reporting of the hypothesis that the SARS-CoV-2 virus did not originate naturally, discrediting the suggestion that it was engineered in a laboratory and accidentally leaked.
An examination of over 3,200 pages of Dr. Fauci's emails, made public by a Freedom of Information Act request from BuzzFeed News, shows how on the weekend of Jan. 31, 2020, Fauci and his associates engaged in discussions on the scientific evidence related to the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and on reports that the virus was possibly leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China.
In the months following these discussions, Fauci, other public officials, members of the scientific community, and their media echo chamber would strongly push back against the lab-leak hypothesis, and would successfully prevail upon major media outlets and social media companies to silence anyone who asked questions about the hypothesis.
Perhaps most troubling about this episode is that there is no obvious, science-based reason for any of the people involved in the coordinated messaging effort to shut down public discussion of the lab leak theory. Public discussion of the lab leak theory, after all, would have had no scientific bearing on how the pandemic should be treated or managed from a public health perspective. Even if the lab leak theory was completely wrong or contrary to the best scientific evidence, what scientific, non-nefarious reason could there possibly have been to prevent public discussion of the theory? None springs readily to mind.
The consensus narrative that emerged was that scientific evidence supported an alternative theory — that the virus began in bats and evolved naturally to be transmissible among humans. Researchers traced the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to a so-called "wet market" in Wuhan, China, where live wild animals were sold for human consumption. From there, they said, the virus spread globally, infecting more than 172,903,158 people and leading to as many as 3,717,197 deaths worldwide.
There were those who questioned the prevailing narrative, who wondered if it was more than coincidence this novel coronavirus emerged in a city located near the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That premier research institution is one of only three laboratories in the world that performs "gain-of-function" research — altering virus strains to be more transmissible to humans in order to study how they may evolve naturally and create more effective vaccines — on bat-related coronaviruses.
Many virologists, including Dr. Fauci and several of his colleagues, believe such research is necessary to understand how viral pandemics could strike and needed to develop preventative countermeasures to mitigate the loss of human life. Others say the work to make viruses deadlier is dangerous and, if an accident happens, could cause a pandemic not unlike the ongoing one.
What if, some wondered, Chinese scientists in a lab known to have security issues had fiddled with a bat coronavirus, made it transmissible to humans, and accidentally released it upon an unsuspecting world?
But the people asking such questions were viciously attacked. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for instance, was denigrated as a conspiracy theorist. As were countless others. For more than a year, the mainstream media left the authoritative consensus view unchallenged, defending it against all dissent. The expert opinions of Fauci, WIV lead researcher and "bat woman" Shi Zhengli, zoologist and EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, and others in government and respected positions of academia were accepted as scientific law by social media companies, which proceeded to deplatform dissenting voices in the name of combatting "misinformation."
But now the "fringe" lab-leak theory is getting a second look. Those that insist SARS-CoV-2 is a naturally occurring virus have failed to produce a bat or other animal that carries a virus with a matching genetic signature. Fauci and others involved in last year's discussions are walking back their assurances that SARS-CoV-2 was not engineered in a lab and somehow released. The White House's top health adviser now says he's keeping an "open mind" about the lab-leak theory and that a "fair, open investigation" is needed to determine the source of the pandemic.
In the interest of a "fair, open" inquiry, it is worth reviewing media reports, public statements by prominent scientists, and private email communications disclosed by records requests made in the course of the last year that raise questions about the campaign against the lab-leak hypothesis and the possible motivations interested parties had in protecting "gain-of-function" research from public outrage by stamping out discussions linking it to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: a NIAID bureaucrat approaching 40 years of service who was the federal government's most visible spokesman for all things coronavirus-related throughout last year. His agency is responsible for approving research grants to EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit research organization, as well as virtually every similar organization in the United States.
Peter Daszak: a fierce opponent of the lab-leak theory and president of EcoHealth Alliance. Between 2014 and 2019, his organization funneled $3.4 million in National Institutes of Health grants provided by Fauci's subagency to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study bat coronaviruses. He was also the only American on a 10-member team that the World Health Organization sent to China last winter to investigate the origins of the virus. At least one major virologist has claimed that Daszack's nonprofit helped fund risky "gain-of-function" research.
Dr. Ralph S. Baric: the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of North Carolina. He is a world leader in the study of the coronaviruses. He has conducted gain-of-function research at his institution and in 2015 he began collaborating with Shi Zhengli, the lead Chinese researcher at WIV, nicknamed China's "bat woman." Shi is a virologist who has identified dozens of deadly coronaviruses by exploring bat caves and collecting samples. Her coronavirus research is funded in part by the NIH grants provided by EcoHealth Alliance.
Timeline of events
- November 2011: Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier publishes a controversial gain-of-function study showing how an H5N1 avian influenza virus could be genetically altered in a lab to be transmissible between ferrets, animals that closely mimic the human response to flu. The study ignites heated debate over gain-of-function research and support begins building to ban federal funding for such research in the United States. Dr. Fauci, his colleague National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, and NIAID director of vaccine research Gary Nabel write an op-ed in the Washington Post defending Fouchier's gain-of-function study.
- June 2012: Three men working in a copper mine in southwestern China fall ill with pneumonia-like symptoms and die. Six months later, Chinese researchers led by Shi Zhengli investigate the mine shaft, collecting samples from bat guano and discovering a diverse group of coronaviruses in six bat species. Among the samples collected is a virus called RaTG13, which scientists believe is the closest known relative of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
- May 2014: Daszak's EcoHealth Alliance receives a $3.4 million grant from Fauci's NIAID to study bat coronaviruses in China. Over the next four years, it provides $133,000 annually to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and $66,000 in the fifth year.
- October 2014: After high profile lab accidents involving anthrax and smallpox, and media attention surrounding the Ebola outbreak, Fauci reconsiders his position and the Obama administration announces a moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research for influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses. At the time, Dr. Ralph Baric, described by a colleague as the "foremost coronavirus biologist in the United States," was conducting several gain-of-function experiments in his North Carolina laboratory. He would tell NPR, "It took me 10 seconds to realize that most of them were going to be affected" after he learned of the moratorium.
- November 2015: Dr. Baric publishes a collaborative study with Shi Zhengli that showed how the spike protein of a novel coronavirus could infect human cells. The researchers used mice as test subjects and "generated and characterized a chimeric virus" by inserting the protein from a Chinese rufous horseshoe bat into the molecular structure of the 2002 SARS virus, engineering a new pathogen. The acknowledgements of the study note it was funded by grants from Fauci's NIAID. "Experiments with the full-length and chimeric SHC014 recombinant viruses were initiated and performed before the [gain-of-function] research funding pause and have since been reviewed and approved for continued study by the NIH," the authors note.
- December 2017: "The National Institutes of Health will again fund research that makes viruses more dangerous," read an article from Nature after the Trump administration lifted the moratorium on gain-of-function research. The Department of Health and Human Services was instructed to create a framework to review proposed gain-of-function research before approving funding for these projects. It creates the Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework.
- January 2018: U.S. Embassy officials visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology and reportedly become very concerned about a shortage of appropriately trained technicians at the lab, which is storing dangerous virus samples. They reviewed Shi Zhengli's research and concluded "continued surveillance of SARS-like coronaviruses in bats and study of the animal-human interface critical to future emerging coronavirus outbreak prediction and prevention." Because they deemed the research so important, they requested that the U.S. government provide additional resources to the Wuhan lab to address safety concerns.
- December 2019: Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, China, reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province. On Dec. 31, 2019, at 8:16 a.m., Dr. Baric emails EcoHealth President Peter Daszak with the subject line, "RE: have you heard any news on this? maybe as many as 27 cases with 7 severe in wuhan---ards like pneumonia." Daszak responds a half an hour later informing Baric that his EcoHealth colleague Hongying Li is feeding him information on the pneumonia cases in what appears to be real time. Daszak's emails were obtained as part of a public records request issued by U.S. Right to Know.
- Jan. 6, 2020: Erik Stemmy, the program officer for the Respiratory Diseases Branch Division of Microbiology and Infections Diseases at NIAID, emails Daszak asking if he had any new information on the viral outbreak in China. Daszak replies that he has some off-the-record information and in follow-up emails discusses receiving emerging data on from his Chinese contacts.
- Jan. 12, 2020: China publishes what it claimed was the genetic sequence of a new coronavirus believed to be responsible for the pneumonia cases emerging in Wuhan. EcoHealth Alliance analyzes the Chinese data and determines the virus is related to SARS. Daszak writes in an email to Stemmy that the virus is "close to SARr-CoV Rp3 that we published from our past NIAID work. This came from a Rhinolophus bat in S. China." He notes that Dr. Baric was "already working to reconstruct and rescue the virus in the lab from the sequence, so he can do further work on it."
- Jan. 22, 2020: A World Health Organization delegation to China announces there is evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus in Wuhan. A day earlier, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first U.S. COVID-19 case.
- Jan. 23, 2020: Shi Zhengli's research team reports the novel coronavirus' genetic sequence is 96.2% similar to a previously identified bat coronavirus named RaTG13, information Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance appeared to have access to before it was published.
- Jan. 30, 2020: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) suggests that China is lying about the role of the Wuhan seafood market in the origins of the coronavirus. He refers to an article in the Lancet that found of the 40 original COVID-19 cases, 14 of them had no contact with the market, including the person believed to be Patient Zero.
- Jan. 31, 2020: Reporter Jon Cohen publishes an article in Science discussing efforts by researchers to investigate the origins of the virus. The article covers Zhengli's work and leans into the emerging hypothesis that the virus occurred naturally in bats and evolved to be transmissible to humans. Cohen also discusses "conspiracy theories" linking China's coronavirus research to weapons research. Molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University is quoted raising concerns over gain-of-function research and expressing his opinion that what became to be known as the SARS-CoV-2 virus is "consistent with entry into the human population as either a natural accident or a laboratory accident." Daszak is also quoted blasting the suggestion the virus was engineered.
- Jan. 31, 2020 8:43 PM: The article is forwarded in an email to Dr. Anthony Fauci. Fauci in turn forward the article to several of his NIH colleagues and to Jeremy Farrar, the head of a British non-profit organization and Kristian Andersen, a professor at Scripps Research, writing "This just came out today. You may have seen it. If not, it is of interest to the current discussion." Both of these individuals would go on to strongly denounce the lab-leak hypothesis in the coming weeks.
- Jan. 31, 2020 10:32 PM: Andersen replies to Fauci, praising the article but noting difficulties in tracing the origins of the virus. "The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered." Andersen would later say that while he and other scientists strongly considered the lab leak a possibility, further research led him to the conclusion that the virus was not engineered.
- Feb. 1, 2020 7:29 AM: Fauci sent an email to NIAID Principal Deputy Director Hugh Auchincloss, writing "It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on ... read this paper as well as the e-mail that I will forward to you now. You will have tasks today that must be done." Attached to the email was a copy of the 2015 gain-of-function study authored by Baric and Zheng-Li that was funded by NIAID. Fauci soon after forwarded Cohen's Science magazine article to Auchincloss.
- Feb. 1, 2020 8:19 AM: Fauci emailed the 2015 study to NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak with the subject line "IMPORTANT." "Here it is," Fauci wrote.
- Feb. 1, 2020 10:34 AM: Farrar sent an email blast announcing a 2 p.m. conference call. In bold lettering, his email declared "information and discussion is shared in total confidence and not to be shared until agreement on next steps." The email also included an agenda for the call, with Farrar presenting "Introduction, focus and desired outcomes", Andersen giving a "summary," "comments" from Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist and virologist at the University of Sydney, a "Q&A" session for everyone, and "summary and next steps" presented by Farrar again to conclude the call. There were 13 people, including Fauci and Andersen, listed on the agenda.
- Feb. 1, 2020 10:34 AM: Auchincloss responds to Fauci's email, writing "The paper you sent me says the experiments were performed before the gain of function pause but have since been reviewed and approved by NIH. Not sure what that means since Emily is sure that no Coronavirus work has gone through the P3 framework. She will try to determine if we have any distant ties to this work abroad."
The Washington Examiner notes "Emily" likely refers to Emily Erbelding, the director of NIH's division of microbiology and infectious diseases. The "P3 framework" refers to the P3CO framework HHS set up in 2017 to review gain of function research proposals before issuing grants. Since the paper in question was published in 2015, before the P3CO framework was created, it wouldn't have been reviewed by that body, raising questions about how NIH reviewed and approved Baric's gain of function research in 2015 while the Obama moratorium was still in place.
Fauci told Auchincloss, "OK. Stay tuned."
- Feb. 1, 2020 2:00 PM: The conference call organized by Farrar is presumably held on time. Emails recapping what was discussed are redacted, including notes from Ron Fouchier, the Dutch scientist who in 2011 authored the controversial gain-of-function study that inspired a campaign to ban that research. But following this discussion, the public campaign against the lab-leak theory intensified.
- Feb. 2, 2020: NIH Director Francis Collins emails Farrar to tell him he is available to call WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "Let me know if I can help get through his thicket of protectors," he wrote, copying Fauci and Tabak. About two hours later, Collins emails Farrar again, with Fauci copied, writing "Really appreciate us thinking through the options ..." before a redacted line.
At 11:28 a.m., Farrar emails Fauci and Collins, writing: "Tedros and [WHO representative in China Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer] have apparently gone into conclave … they need to decide today in my view. If they do prevaricate, I would appreciate a call with you later tonight or tomorrow to think how we might take forward." At the end of the email, Farrar wrote "meanwhile" and linked to a ZeroHedge article published that day that reported on claims that COVID-19 was engineered in the Wuhan-based lab.
- Feb. 3, 2020: ZeroHedge is banned from Twitter for publishing a "coronavirus conspiracy theory." On the same day, Tedros delivers a speech to the WHO executive board that mentions, among other priorities for the organization, the need to "combat the spread of rumors and misinformation." Twitter did not respond to a request for comment from TheBlaze about whether Fauci or anyone else from the NIAID contacted them about the ZeroHedge article to flag it for "disinformation."
"We have worked with Google to make sure people searching for information about coronavirus see WHO information at the top of their search results," Tedros said. "Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tencent, and TikTok have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation."
Also on this day, Business Insider publishes an article juxtaposing Sen. Cotton's remarks from several days ago with "conspiracy theories" alleging that the virus originated in a Chinese lab linked to a biowarfare program. Cotton made no such allegations, but his sensible concerns that China lied were tied to the conspiracy theory.
- Feb. 4, 2020: Four days after writing to Fauci about the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 virus looks "engineered," Kristian Andersen provides input on a statement EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak is drafting to strongly condemn the lab-leak hypothesis. Andersen advises the authors of the statement to "be more firm on the question of engineering." "The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to the virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case," Andersen wrote. He argues that data conclusively shows the virus causing COVID-19 was not engineered.
- Feb. 6, 2020: Daszak continues to organize colleagues and associates to sign "a statement in support of the scientists, public health and medical professionals of China." The statement is intended to authoritatively discredit the lab-leak hypothesis. In emails, Daszak writes that he intends the statement "not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person" but rather to be seen as "simply a letter from leading scientists". Daszak also writes that he wants "to avoid the appearance of a political statement."
In an email to Dr. Baric with the subject line, "No need for you to sign the 'Statement' Ralph!!" Daszak suggests it would be best if he and Baric refrain from signing the statement "so it has some distance from us and therefore doesn't work in a counterproductive way." Baric agrees in reply, writing "otherwise it looks self-serving and we lose impact."
- Feb. 9, 2020: Margaret Brennan falsely claims Cotton "suggested that the virus may have come from China's biological warfare program" on "Face the Nation." A tweet from "Face the Nation" summarizing the TV segment accuses Cotton of latching on to a "conspiracy theory" and Cotton's account fires back. But the horse is out of the barn and for the next year or so the media denigrated Cotton as a conspiracy theorist. In May 2021, with the benefit of hindsight, Matthew Yglesias would finally clear up the truth about what Cotton said for his progressive audience.
- Feb. 19, 2020: The completed statement is published in The Lancet with 27 prominent public health scientists signing on to condemn "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin." Notably, Andersen is not among the signatories even though he helped draft the statement. A year later when his emails were made public, Andersen claimed, "I did not sign the Lancet letter because I (+ coauthors) found it premature to conclude there was no lab leak without carefully analyzing available data first." It is not clear why, if it was premature for Andersen to sign the statement, it was NOT premature for him to help write it. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the publication of this statement. As noted in a Vanity Fair article probing the investigation of the virus's origins, when this statement was issued, it "effectively ended the debate over COVID-19's origins before it began."
- March 5, 2020: Science Feedback, one of Facebook's fact-checking platforms, releases a "fact check" of a New York Post article that cited Daszak as an expert source to rule there was "no evidence" supporting the lab-leak hypothesis. Daszak wrote a section of the fact-check called "Reviewer's Feedback" that disclosed his ties to the WIV, and heavily criticized the Post article as "appalling." Publishers who are negatively rated by Facebook's "fact-checkers" are subject to severe penalties from Facebook that can affect their financial solvency.
- March 6, 2020: Andersen writes an email to Fauci, Farrar, and Collins announcing that a paper he authored on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 was just accepted by the journal Nature Medicine and would be published shortly. He encourages Fauci and the others to provide comments or suggestions about the paper or its press release if they have them. Two days later, Fauci replies, "Nice job on the paper."
- March 15, 2020: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, reaches out to Fauci about the possibility of collaborating with Fauci regarding what constitutes "authoritative information" about COVID-19. Part of this communication remains redacted.
- March 17, 2020: Andersen's paper, "The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2" is published and becomes the most influential study on the origins of the virus. "We do not believe any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible," the authors wrote. National media outlets seized on the study as the definitive final word on the matter. The lab-leak hypothesis was put to death and those repeating President Donald Trump's claims to the contrary were just as ignorant, anti-Science, conspiracy-minded, and racist as the president, as far as the media was concerned.
- March 21, 2020: Daszak champions Andersen's study on social media. In the following months, he would continue to use his Twitter account to forcefully attack the "conspiracy theorists" contradicting Andersen's study.
- April 16, 2020 5:02 PM: NIH Director Collins emails Fauci with the subject line "conspiracy gains momentum. The text is redacted, but there is a link to a Mediate story covering Fox News host Brett Baier reporting that "multiple sources" believe COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab before escaping and infecting the population. Fauci's response is redacted.
- April 18, 2020: Dr. Fauci, in his capacity as the chief spokesman for the White House at the daily coronavirus response briefings, endorses Andersen's study and rejects the lab-leak hypothesis. The narrative that "science" says the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not engineered in a lab prevails.
Later that day, Daszak emails Fauci: "I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From my perspective, your comments are brave, and coming from your trusted voice, will help dispel the myths being spun around the virus's origins."
- April 20, 2020: Fauci shares three articles with Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz arguing in favor of a natural origin for COVID-19 and pushing back against the lab-leak theory.
- April 30, 2020: The U.S. Intelligence Community releases a statement endorsing the "scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified." Later that day, President Donald Trump claims to have seen evidence that the coronavirus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, contradicting his administration's official position. He tells the media he is "not allowed" to share the evidence with them. Trump's contradiction of the "scientific consensus" ignites a media firestorm and any public questioning of Fauci's determination on the origins of the coronavirus became taboo.
- May 4, 2020: Fauci dismisses the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a lab during an interview with National Geographic, likening it to a "pie in the sky" theory.
- May 5, 2020: Fauci receives a forwarded email from Ian W. Lipkin, a virologist at Columbia University and one of the five co-authors of Andersen's "proximal origin" paper. Lipkin shared an email communication he had with former Chinese minister of health Chen Zhu about COVID-19's origins. The redacted message reads in part, "Uncertainty about the origin of COVID-19 pandemic is causing friction worldwide, particularly between China and the United States. There is agreement that the causative agent, SARS-CoV-2 originated in a bat. There is also a high level of confidence that the virus was not deliberately modified in any laboratory."
Lipkin tells Fauci, "We deeply appreciate your efforts in steering and messaging."
- Aug. 27, 2020: Under Fauci's leadership, NIAID awarded 11 new grants with a total first-year value of $17 million to establish the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases (CREID). CREID will be a global network that will investigate how and where viruses and other deadly pathogens emerge in the wild and cause people to get sick. Over the next five years, NIAID will provide $82 million to support this network. Kristian Andersen and Peter Daszak, who worked with Fauci on messaging about the origins of the coronavirus, are among the recipients of this funding.
- Dec. 9, 2020: Months later, State Department officials reportedly gathered to discuss an upcoming fact-finding mission to Wuhan organized in part by the World Health Organization. The State Department had classified intelligence that three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers were conducting gain-of-function experiments in autumn 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak happened. Christopher Park, the director of the State Department's Biological Policy Staff in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, allegedly warned the officials not to say anything that would draw attention to the U.S. government's role in gain-of-function research.
Four former State Department officials interviewed by Vanity Fair claim they were told not to open a "Pandora's box" by investigating the lab-leak theory. The warnings "smelled like a cover-up," said Thomas DiNanno, who wrote a memo obtained by Vanity Fair accusing the State Department of warning his staff not to pursue an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
There are several fascinating articles detailing how after America's top health experts spent the last year discrediting the lab-leak hypothesis, their failure to produce a sufficient explanation for COVID-19's natural origins has brought alternative views back into the mainstream. But what is astounding is that after repeated assurances that there was nothing worth investigating, after a year of messaging to the contrary, Fauci and other proponents of the natural-origin theory are now hedging their bets.
The question should be asked, were those discrediting the lab-leak hypothesis working to find the truth about COVID-19's origins in order to best inform and protect the public? Or were they defending millions of dollars of funding for experimental research, lifetimes of work, their jobs, and their credibility against a hypothesis that put it all at risk?