National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci denied that the National Institutes of Health has ever funded "gain of function research" at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — the Chinese lab that became the focus of intense scrutiny at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — during yet another heated back-and-forth with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Fauci appeared Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions to testify on the ongoing pandemic response. When it was his turn to ask questions, Paul grilled Fauci on NIH funding for viral research in Wuhan, China, and the possibility that the novel coronavirus that caused the current global pandemic was a product of "gain of function" research that leaked from that lab.
"Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?" Paul asked.
"Sen. Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely, entirely and completely incorrect," Fauci retorted. "The NIH has not ever, and does not now, fund 'gain of function research' in the Wuhan Institute."
"Gain of function" research involves genetically enhancing viral pathogens in order to predict which may become especially dangerous to the human population. The research is controversial because of the risk that a virus found naturally occurring in animals that is modified to be able to infect humans could accidentally — or deliberately — be released and cause a pandemic.
Paul made numerous references to an article published by New York Magazine in January that described the development of gain of function research and how a U.S. virologist named Dr. Ralph Baric collaborated with Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study bat and human coronaviruses beginning in 2015. The article noted there is no direct evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was artificially created and subsequently leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab, but also acknowledged there is a lack of direct evidence for the virus occurring naturally.
Between 2014 and 2019, a U.S. nonprofit group called the EcoHealth Alliance diverted $600,000 in National Institutes of Health subgrants to the Wuhan Institute to study bat coronaviruses. In March, Politico reported that the U.S. government was aware WIV was conducting gain-of-function research "on a much larger scale than was publicly disclosed."
Fauci insisted that claims the NIH grants were used to fund gain-of-function research were false. He defended the subgrants to the Wuhan Institute, which he says were used to study coronaviruses in bats.
"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 bat viruses and the serology to see who might have been infected," Fauci said.
"Or perhaps it would be irresponsible to send it to the Chinese government that we may not be able to trust with this knowledge and with this incredibly dangerous viruses," Paul interrupted.
Fauci then adamantly denied that he supported gain-of-function research in China.
Paul's next question dealt with the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the Wuhan lab.
"Will you in front of this group categorically say that the COVID-19 virus could not have occurred by serial passage in a laboratory?" Paul asked.
"I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I'm fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China," Fauci said in response. "However, I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology."
After the hearing, Paul accused Fauci of dissembling during his questions.