Sen. Rand Paul has sparred numerous times in hearings with Dr. Anthony Fauci over gain-of-function research, and now the Kentucky Republican will help lead a hearing dedicated to the subject and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scheduled for Wednesday, the hearing comes amid growing Republican scrutiny on whether the pandemic began with a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as well as the U.S. funding of research to make bat coronaviruses more potent or transmissible, Just the News reported.
The hearing, "Revisiting Gain-of-Function Research: What the Pandemic Taught Us and Where Do We Go From Here," will be held by the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight. Paul is the panel's ranking member, and Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire is the chairman.
Witnesses at the Wednesday hearing will include three prominent figures who have argued the evidence points to a lab-leak origin: Dr. Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University; Dr. Steven Quay, chief executive officer at Atossa Therapeutics Inc.; and Kevin M. Esvelt, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at MIT Media Lab.
In September, Ebright said government documents reported by The Intercept "make it clear that assertions" by the then-NIH director, Francis Collins, and Fauci "that the NIH did not support gain-of-function research or potential pandemic pathogen enhancement at WIV are untruthful."
Ebright was among the 16 scientists who authored a letter published in September in the prestigious British science journal The Lancet calling for another look at the evidence that the pandemic began with a lab leak. The scientists condemned a February 2020 letter organized by Wuhan lab collaborator Peter Daszak marginalizing anyone who entertained the lab-leak theory as a conspiracist. Ebright and his 15 colleagues said Daszak's letter and a subsequent missive had "a silencing effect on the wider scientific debate, including among science journalists."
Quay, in a Wall Street Journal column he co-wrote last December, cited four studies, including two from the World Health Organization, that provide strong evidence favoring the lab-leak theory.
One study, published by Nature Medicine, concluded the original SARS-CoV-2 pathogen was 99.5% optimized for human infection, which is a strong confirmation of the lab-leak hypothesis.
Esvelt, in a Washington Post op-ed titled "Manipulating viruses risking pandemics is too dangerous," countered a 2011 Washington Post op-ed by Fauci and Collins that gain-of-function research is "A flu virus risk worth taking."
A statement from Paul's office about the hearing Wednesday said gain-of-function research "has historically been supported by tax dollars both domestically and internationally; as such, this hearing lies at the intersection of the subcommittee's two primary jurisdictional responsibilities – monitoring emerging threats and conducting oversight of federal spending."
Paul has engaged in numerous exchanges with Fauci over the past two years in Senate hearings. The latest was in January when Paul presented evidence contradicting Fauci's insistence that his government agency did not resume and fund dangerous "gain-of-function" research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Last July, Paul sent a criminal referral to the Department of Justice accusing Fauci of lying to Congress about his role in funding the research.
Fauci is seen on video at a January 2018 NIAID Advisory Council meeting announcing the reinstatement of gain-of-function research and defending its use.
See the video:
The senator's office noted in the statement about the hearing Wednesday that the NIH suspended funding of all gain-of-function projects under the Obama administration because of the dangers of the research.
The moratorium was lifted in 2017 after a special review committee was established to manage the risks.
"However, serious questions remain about whether that protocol is sufficient to protect the U.S. and the world from the potential negative consequences of this research," the statement said.
"Moreover, the debate over what gain-of-function research is and what it is not, is not settled."
Last week, Paul tried to introduce an amendment to the $280 billion CHIPS Act that would ban all U.S. funding of gain-of-function research in China. But the move was blocked by Democrats, even though the Senate had previously unanimously agreed to the measure in a 2021 version of the bill.
Paul said in remarks on the Senate floor July 26 that "there's a great deal of evidence that this pandemic arose out of the [Wuhan] lab."
"The emergence of COVID serves as a reminder that dangerous research conducted in a secretive and totalitarian country is simply too risky to fund," he said.
Undermining a viable theory
Last spring, as WND reported, a legacy magazine alerted its readers to the long-available evidence of Fauci's efforts to undermine the theory that the pandemic originated in a lab in Wuhan, China.
Vanity Fair reported – based on an analysis of more than 100,000 documents – that as investigations into the origin began, Fauci faced the problem of having granted millions of dollars to zoologist Peter Daszak's EcoHealth Alliance to engage in gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses, including at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The magazine's investigators found that Fauci quashed evidence supporting the lab leak theory after Daszak published a highly influential letter in February 2020 in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet. The letter, without disclosing Daszak's clear conflict of interest, marginalized the lab leak possibility as a debunked conspiracy theory, signaling to media that only tin-foil hat investigators and journalists would pursue that line of inquiry.
The NIH, Vanity Fair noted, had issued a $3.7 million grant to Daszak's EcoHealth Alliance. The nonprofit then issued the Wuhan Institute of Virology nearly $600,000 in sub-awards before the NIH, under President Trump, suspended the grant in July 2020 due its possible connection to the pandemic and the apparent violation of an Obama-era moratorium on gain-of-function research.
After interviewing five former staff members and speaking to 33 other sources, Vanity Fair found EcoHealth Alliance operated under "murky grant agreements, flimsy oversight, and the pursuit of government funds for scientific advancement, in part by pitching research of steeply escalating risk."
In 2016, amid a moratorium imposed by the Obama administration on new funding of gain-of-function research, Daszak and EcoHealth sought to make SARS viruses more virulent or transmissible, insisting the research was exempt from the moratorium because the strains used had not previously been known to infect humans.
The research was to be led by "bat lady" Professor Zhengli Shi at the Wuhan Institute of Virology under a compromise agreement with the NIH in which both parties would disclose "concerning developments involving the lab-constructed viruses."
"This is terrific! We are very happy to hear that our Gain of Function research funding pause has been lifted," Daszak said in an email to an NIH officer.
Significantly, the Vanity Fair investigation shows NIH Director Francis Collins and Fauci took actions to shut down inquiry into the lab leak as might be expected of an agency that found a way to continue funding banned research that could have been the cause of a world-altering pandemic blamed for the deaths of millions of people.
In June 2021, for example, biologist Jesse D. Bloom confronted Fauci with a preprint of a paper showing that early genomic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 – a key to discovering the origin of the pandemic – had been deleted from NIH databases at the "request of researchers in Wuhan."
Fauci and Collins then organized a Zoom meeting with the biologist to discuss his findings. The NIH invited four others scientists, biologist Kristian Andersen and virologist Robert Garry. Bloom invited biologists Sergei Pond and Rasmus Nielsen to attend the call.
Fauci objected to the Bloom study's description of Chinese scientists "surreptitiously" deleting the sequences, insisting the word was "loaded and the reason they’d asked for the deletions was unknown."
'A groundless and destructive conspiracy theory'
As more scientists called for transparency about the origin of the virus, Vanity Fair reported, Daszak sought to "present the lab-leak hypothesis as a groundless and destructive conspiracy theory."
As early as February 2020, Fauci, Andersen, Garry and other scientists were holding confidential discussions, Vanity Fair reported, in an effort to "enshrine the natural-origin theory" even though "several of them privately expressed that they felt a lab-related incident was likelier."
As WND reported, a Jan. 31, 2020, email Fauci received from Anderson and three other top virologists shows there was strong evidence the virus was engineered in a lab. But after a teleconference the next day with Fauci to discuss the virologists' conclusion, Anderson began dismissing the lab-leak possibility as among "crackpot theories" that "relate to this virus being somehow engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case."
In April 2020, Fauci was asked by a reporter during a White House briefing if the research at the Wuhan lab might be responsible for the pandemic. Fauci insisted a "group of highly qualified evolutionary virologists" had concluded the virus was "totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human."
The next day, Daszak emailed Fauci, thanking him 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," Daszak wrote to Fauci on April 18, 2020.
'A lack of transparency'
As WND reported last September, the COVID-19 origins task force affiliated with The Lancet disbanded because of its connection to Daszak, who had chaired the panel before recusing himself from that role in June because of his clear conflict of interest. Daszak, in addition, was the sole U.S. representative on a World Health Organization panel that concluded the coronavirus pandemic had a natural origin.
The Lancet task force member who succeeded Daszak as chairman before disbanding the panel, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, told Vanity Fair there has been "a lack of transparency" in the investigation of the origin. He called for an "independent scientific investigation" of the possible role of the NIH, EcoHealth, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a partner laboratory at the University of North Carolina run by Dr. Ralph Baric.
'I have always kept an open mind'
Fauci, in an interview with the BBC this week, was asked how he "could be so certain, so early on" that the pandemic had a natural origin when he "knew so little about the virus."
"Well, I was never certain so early on," Fauci replied. "I have always kept an open mind. But when you look at the circumstances of the evolution, the similarity between [SARS-CoV-2] and SARS-CoV-1 from 2002 and 2003, I said – as did many other virologists who are very experienced in that – that the most likely etiology was a jumping species from an animal to the human.
The BBC presenter then brought up Daszak's now-retracted letter in The Lancet in February 2020 ridiculing anyone positing the lab leak theory as a conspiracy theorist.
"Was the scientific community too quick to dismiss the possibility that it could have come from a laboratory?" she asked.
"Well, I don't think they were dismissing it," Fauci said. "I think it's been misinterpreted. Everyone has always kept an open mind."
But Daszak and the 26 other scientists boldly stated in the letter: "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."
The scientists then published a March 17, 2020, article in the journal Nature Medicine that stated, "Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus."
But last September, The Lancet published a letter from 16 scientists that essentially condemned the two letters, charging the missives had "a silencing effect on the wider scientific debate, including among science journalists."
See Fauci's remarks to the BBC about the pandemic origin: