New NIH Emails Released: What Are Officials Trying to Hide About Covid’s Origins?

A conversation on the ongoing battle to expose the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo Illustration: The Intercept/Ap, Getty Images

A top National Institutes of Health official told Covid scientists he uses his personal email to evade strictures of the Freedom of Information Act, according to records obtained by congressional investigators probing the origins of Covid-19. This week on Deconstructed, journalist Jimmy Tobias joins Ryan Grim to discuss the U.S. government’s response to the question of Covid’s origins, attempts by NIH officials to skirt transparency, and the ongoing battle to access intelligence investigations into the origin of the pandemic.

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim, and today we’re going to take another look at the ongoing controversy around the origin of Covid, focusing on two major new developments.

Now, if you feel lost in all the claims and the counterclaims flying around in what is becoming a highly-politicized and tribal debate, I’d recommend scrolling back in the feed to our May 6, 2022 episode on the lab leak, which I genuinely think is the best podcast summary of it you’re going to find. It’s an interview with three journalists who’ve been tracking the issue closely.

Today we’re going to be talking to a fourth, Jimmy Tobias, who has a new piece in The Intercept that adds valuable context to what we know about how the U.S. government responded to the question of Covid’s origin.

Jimmy, welcome to Deconstructed.

Jimmy Tobias: Thanks for having me.

RG: And so, of the two developments I referred to, one is his major new piece, which you can find over at The Intercept, and it’s not that long, and I encourage people to read it if they can.

The other is the release by the administration of a four-page declassified set of assessments related mostly to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That declassification was a belated effort by the administration to comply with a law passed by Congress mandating the disclosure. It was a quite short and clear law so, rather than describe it, I’ll just read you the relevant part:

“Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Director of National Intelligence shall: declassify any and all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of Covid–19, including; activities performed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology with or on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army, coronavirus research or other related activities performed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the outbreak of Covid–19, and researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who fell ill in autumn 2019, including for any such researcher: the researcher’s name; the researcher’s symptoms; the date of the onset of the researcher’s symptoms; the researcher’s role at the Wuhan Institute of Virology; whether the researcher was involved with or exposed to coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology; whether the researcher visited a hospital while they were ill; and a description of any other actions taken by the researcher that may suggest they were experiencing a serious illness at the time; and submit to Congress an unclassified report that contains: all of the information described under paragraph and only such redactions as the Director determines necessary to protect sources and methods.”

So, Jimmy, that’s basically the law that was passed recently, which led to, like I said, a belated four-page report — I think it’s about a week overdue.

First of all, to help set the conversation up. Can you talk a little bit about this new declassified report, and why there’s so much interest in the health of these lab workers?

JT: Yeah. You know, for 90 days now if not more, people have been eagerly awaiting the release of this report in the hope that it might shed light on what happened in Wuhan. Whether, indeed, there were sick workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the initial days of the Covid-19 outbreak, and whether the Chinese military was involved at the lab. And I think, when it came out, the main standout thing for me is that there was no underlying documentation released with this report, as required by the law. I mean, this was a summary by ODNI, more or less, of the various views and the intelligence community about the origin of Covid. But there was no evidence, there was no underlying evidence, no documentation for the public to scrutinize.

And, because of that, the report received a very negative reaction from the law’s sponsor, Josh Hawley, and its co-sponsor, Mike Braun, both senators. They sent a scathing letter to ODNI over the weekend, calling the report paltry, noting its violation of the law, and demanding that the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, actually produce the underlying intelligence on Covid origins, which she failed to do.

And so, it’ll be really interesting to see whether ODNI responds to that. They basically — and I quote — said, “Try again.”

RG: Yeah. And this was a law that was passed by a Democratic-controlled Senate, it was signed by a Democratic president, and I just read the law. It says “any and all information.” If lawmakers or if the administration had issue with that, they had an opportunity to veto it, to vote against it. Instead, they voted it through. And, compared to the requirement for quote, “any and all information,” I’ll read quickly from the Intel report about the illnesses.

This is from the ODNI report. They say: “While several WIV researchers fell mildly ill in fall 2019, they experienced a range of symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with Covid-19, and some of them were confirmed to have been sick with other illnesses unrelated to Covid-19. While some of these researchers had historically conducted research into animal respiratory viruses, we are unable to confirm if any of them handled live viruses in the work they performed prior to falling ill.”

And so, this comes after The Wall Street Journal confirmed reporting by Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger on Substack that named the three researchers who had allegedly fallen ill. What’s your sense of how much more the intelligence community knows, and why do you think we wound up with just this very vague, “OK, yes. The rumors that some people were sick were true, but some people had some things that were not consistent with Covid?”

JT: Yeah. Frankly, I don’t know how much the intelligence community knows. Obviously, the Department of Energy and the FBI have both assessed that they think it’s most likely that the virus came from a lab. Four other intelligence community agencies think it came up from nature, and the CIA and another agency haven’t made a determination, because there’s conflicting evidence.

I think, for me, as a reporter, it’s hard to take a report like this and know what to do with it without seeing any underlying documentation. Again, I mean, that’s really what I’m stressing. We need to be able to assess this for ourselves because, as a skeptic of the government, it’s just hard to take what they say at face value, without being able to assess it or analyze it for oneself.

I think that’s the real failure of this report, that there is no evidence to put out there. And, until we get that evidence, it’s really hard to assess the claims of this report, and to really determine whether those workers were sick, how sick they were, what their symptoms were, when and if they went to the hospital. It’s just, it’s really difficult to know.

And I’ll also note that the report was filled with circumspect language and hedging, and so it’s kind of like reading tea leaves, and that’s exactly what’s happened. People on the natural origin side of the debate have read it to support their claims, some people on the lab leak side of the debate have read it to support their claims. And so we need the evidence.

RG: And the other rather jarring line in that statute, for people not following this closely, might be the reference to the People’s Liberation Army. And I think when you start talking about bioweapons, and the Chinese military, and Covid, you start to lose people who think you’re often in conspiracy land, but there it is in the statute requesting information.

And I have this here, here’s what the declassified report said: “Although the WIV is independent of the People’s Liberation Army, the IC assesses that WIV personnel have worked with scientists associated with the PLA on public health related research, and collaborated on biosafety and biosecurity projects. Information available to the IC” — that’s Intelligence Community — “indicates that some of the research conducted by the PLA and the WIV included work with several viruses, including coronaviruses, but no known viruses that could plausibly be a progenitor of SARS-Covid-2.”

And the reason I wanted to quote from this report is that, in the public conversation over the past few days, it’s being bandied about, as you said, as evidence that the lab leak theory has now been thoroughly debunked. The LA Times ran a column asserting that it exposed the lab leak, as a, quote, “lie.” And I’m just not convinced that the people making those claims read this very short report. It certainly doesn’t provide any conclusive evidence that it originated in a lab, but the idea that it rules it out is just not true.

JT: No.

RG: Now, I’ll admit that I’ve had a hard time covering this issue, and not being driven mad by all the misinformation, and obfuscation, and all the accusations that if you’re curious about this question, you must be some crypto right-winger. So, what’s it been like for you? How do you sift through all the noise in your own reporting?

JT: Yeah. There’s no question this debate has been very bitter, very toxic. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever reported on, for sure. You know, for me, I try not to engage in the ad hominem stuff, try not to reply to the nasty comments; I know what my values are. And the main thing I’m trying to do is get documents from the government and present them to readers that can shed light on what happened around this question throughout the pandemic.

And so, really, I’ve tried just to stick to the documents. Get documents via FOIA and FOIA lawsuits, put them in context, and provide them to readers. I think when you use documents to write a story, people can’t say, “oh, that’s not true,” because the documents are right there in their face. And so, I think that strategy has served me relatively well.

It’s not like I’ve avoided heat from some of the more vitriolic participants in this debate, but it has made the reporting strong and defensible, and that’s what journalism is about, in my view.

RG: And that brings us to your latest story, which is based on a new ream of documents that you’ve gotten, and I’ll just read the top of it, and ask you to talk a little bit about how you obtained these documents and what you learned from them.

You write: “A top adviser to Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health admitted that he used a personal email account in an apparent effort to evade the strictures of the Freedom of Information Act, according to records obtained by congressional investigators probing the origin of Covid-19. The official also expressed his intention to delete emails in order to avoid media scrutiny.”

And you’re talking here about David Morens, a high ranking NIH official deputy to Anthony Fauci, in a September 2021 email exchange with a number of the most vocal advocates of the nature theory of origins.

So, can you tell us a little bit about who Morens is, and why this is relevant?

JT: Yeah. Morens is a 25-year veteran of NIH who serves as a senior scientific advisor to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which was a position that Anthony Fauci held for many years, until his retirement late last year. And these documents, as I say in the story, were obtained by congressional investigators on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. From what I understand, they were obtained from records in the possession of Dr. Robert Garry of Tulane University.

And yeah, I’m a reporter who uses FOIA as a tool a lot, and so, it was pretty shocking to see this very high-ranking government official basically saying that he uses a personal email account, I’ll quote: he says, “As you know” — in his email to these scientists — “I try to always communicate on Gmail because my NIH email is FOIA’d constantly.” And later, he says that his Gmail was hacked, so he had to use his government account. He says, “Don’t worry, just send to any of my addresses, and I will delete anything I don’t want to see in The New York Times.”

And when I talked to ethics and public transparency experts about this, they were very disturbed. They couldn’t believe that a government official would put something like this in writing.

RG: The first thing that occurs to you is, if somebody has a consciousness of what they’re doing here, that they are specifically avoiding their government email so that it does not later become public and turn up in The New York Times or The Intercept, you would think that they would not write that in a government email? 

JT: It wasn’t. This was an email sent on his Gmail account to this group.

RG: Oh, probably to Robert Garry. And so, then it got obtained through other eyes…

JT: Yes. Through the investigation. Yeah, exactly. So, I don’t think this person intended that for this to be made public, obviously

RG: It makes me feel a little better about Dr. Morens’ aptitude, although it’s still not a great thing to put in writing —

JT: No.

RG: — because anything you put in writing, no matter where you put it, might wind up in the pages of The New York Times.

Can you talk about who was on this email exchange? Because if this was just, he’s emailing with other soccer dads in the neighborhood, then it’s like, OK, fine. I understand why you don’t want your communications about the upcoming eight-year-old birthday party to turn up in The Intercept. But who was he talking to in these exchanges?

JT: Yeah. These were September 2021 email exchanges with Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, Robert Garry of Tulane, Edward Holmes, Kristian Andersen, and Angela Rasmussen. And these are all leading scientists who have been very vocal advocates in favor of the natural origin theory. Several of them were authors of the Proximal Origin paper, which The Intercept has covered at length.

RG: Can you explain what that is, real quickly, for people who haven’t [seen it]?

JT: Sure. The Proximal Origin paper was a paper published in March, 2020, that really threw cold water on the idea that the virus could have come from a lab. It basically said that — although it didn’t entirely rule out a lab leak — it said that it wasn’t plausible. And I’m paraphrasing.

And that paper kind of grew out of these confidential discussions that occurred in February, 2020, between this group of scientists; Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins, and others where, initially in these conversations, there was deep concern that the virus looked potentially engineered, looked like it may have come out of a lab, perhaps of experiments.

But then, the group pretty quickly changed its views, and came to determine — and said in the paper — that, actually, a lab leak is not plausible. And the paper was incredibly influential. It was viewed more than 5 million times online, covered in all sorts of news articles, Francis Collins wrote about it on the NIH website, Dr. Fauci mentioned it from the White House podium. It really kind of set the narrative, I’d say, in many regards, about the origin of Covid debate.

And these confidential discussions didn’t really come to light until years later via FOIA requests, including my own. And so, yeah, the paper has been the subject of a lot of controversy since then. And, in fact, the House Committee Investigating Covid Origins is holding a hearing on it on July 11th. 

RG: September, 2021, is a key moment as well. Can you put this conversation that’s going on between these scientists and Fauci’s in context of what was happening in fall of 2021, as regards this.

JT: Yeah. And perhaps you could weigh in on this, too, because you obviously were involved. This was when The Intercept published several articles, I believe, about the kinds of experiments that were going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, NIH funding related to those experiments.

And so, this email thread, in this email thread with Dr. Morens of NIH and these scientists, they’re bitterly complaining about The Intercept’s coverage, harshly criticizing the lab leak proponents, I guess you could call them. And also sort of laying out their own arguments in favor of national origin for the virus.

And so, this discussion in which Morens wrote this email about FOIA was part of a broader conversation about Covid origins, media coverage, and things like that. And so, to see all these folks, all in communication with each other about this, and then to see this top official saying that he’s using his personal email account in an apparent effort to evade FOIA, and that he’s also expressed his intention to delete emails, is certainly concerning, to say the least.

RG: Yeah. And it’s interesting to read through those emails, knowing what the backstory was. And for people who didn’t follow it, we had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for, basically, the grant documents that underlied EcoHealth Alliance’s work with Wuhan. Eventually sued — as you know, Jimmy, you basically can’t get anything nowadays through FOIA without suing — we sued, and eventually were able to get these documents. Sharon Lerner and Mara Hvistendahl did some great, great reporting on those.

Although, if you read through the chain, their fans are not in that, in those emails; a lot of criticism there. But, also, a lot of criticism of the many, many virologists who were quoted in those articles, and you see them talking about these virologists and saying: Boy, like, some of these, I really respect some of these virologists, and I’m really disappointed that they went on record to say that what we were doing in this research was either risky, or qualifies as gain-of-function research.

And then, as you read through the emails that you’ve reported on here more, you start to see — and I’m curious for your take on this, as you read through them — you start to see Peter Daszak increasingly make admissions to this other group of scientists, that I wonder if, from their perspective, started to become concerning.

At the beginning of the emails, they’re saying, there’s absolutely nothing to any of these claims that we did any gain-of-function research. And then, toward the end of the chain, you see him saying, well, OK, The Intercept is going to have some information that we did do some research that found a significant, one-log gain-of-function. But, we don’t believe that that qualifies because — and he has reasons for why he thinks it doesn’t qualify.

But, I wonder if, as you’re reading through that, you’re like, hmm, I wonder if there was some collar-tugging going on, even among these vocal advocates of the zoonosis theory.

JT: I don’t want to speculate on their thoughts. In general, in this debate, one of the ways I’ve sort of stayed out of trouble is to just try to put the documents out there…

RG: Yeah, good point.

JT: … and let people interpret them as they will. And so, I am very interested to see how people interpret these when we release them. But, you know, from my perspective – and, really, the focus of the article is on Morens and transparency issues — because, as a reporter who believes in FOIA, and believes that the public has a right to know what its government is doing, it’s very disturbing to see that kind of commentary from a top official.

And as with the confidential discussions around proximal origin, this is, again, another instance where the same group of scientists — or some of the same group of scientists — is in conversation with a top NIH official discussing this topic behind closed doors, more or less. And so, that’s a pattern that I find notable.

But yeah. I think I’m awaiting the public’s interpretation of the other contents of this email thread, which we didn’t really get into in this story. 

RG: And the level of vitriol, I think, is notable too. You have one quote from Dr. Morens. He says, “Do not rule out suing these assholes for slander.” And he says, “They need to be called out. Because I am in government I can only do this off the record, but I have done so again and again. Some of them are knowingly promoting false equivalences. If they interviewed a Holocaust survivor, they would say they have to give equal time and space to a Nazi murderer. They have no shame.” Un-quote.

It does not sound like somebody who is exploring with an open mind the origin of the pandemic. What was your reaction to some of that language?

JT: Yeah. I mean, when you see a government official encouraging others to sue their sort of, I guess you could call them “political opponents,” that raises red flags, to say the least. And likening, deploying, “the Nazi thing” in context of lab leakers is also — I mean, I think it speaks to the totally entrenched positions, and bitterness, and vitriol that has come to take over this debate for some reason.

But yeah. I think this does make the NIH look very good. And I think the subcommittee is sending a letter to Morens, and they’re going to ask for his documents from his email, from his phone, and they’re going to ask him for a transcribed interview. And I think we will eventually learn more about what’s going on here.

Did he delete emails that he claimed he was going to delete? Was this a regular pattern, where he used personal email to evade FOIA? Is this part of the agency culture at NIH? Those are questions that are in my mind.

RG: And, speaking of the NIH, the other interesting recent development was that the subcommittee that you’re talking about got confirmation that the agency has actually debarred Wuhan Institute of Virology from getting future U.S. funding. What do you make of that move by NIH, given the resistance to explore some of the questions around what happened there?

JT: My understanding is the subcommittee learned that NIH has referred the Wuhan Institute of Virology for debarment. So, I think there’s probably a process, still, [to play out].

RG: Which is different than debarment.

JT: Yeah. But, basically — and this is a fact I think people have lost sight of a little — back in January, the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services released a report that found that, since late 2021, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has not been responsive to NIH and EcoHealth Alliance requests to provide lab notebook entries and electronic files that could offer insight into the nature of the federally funded experiments performed at the lab.

So, just to consider that: the U.S. government gives money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to conduct experiments, but when it then asked for documentation related to that, it gets stonewalled. And, yeah, I think that’s a pretty astounding fact that somehow isn’t highlighted in this debate much, lately. But, because of that, the Inspector General recommended that NIH consider referring the institute to the Department of Health and Human Services for debarment, which means it would be blocked from receiving funding in the future. And the agency seems to have done just that, according to the committee.

RG: Yeah, and it’s a frustrating situation, too, because we as journalists are looking for evidence that we can then follow to a conclusion. And the conclusion may not be what the lab leakers want, it may not be what the natural origin people want, but there does appear to be evidence that the U.S. government is trying to get from Wuhan, but is failing to do so.

What else, as you continue reporting on this, remains outstanding, that you’re hopeful could still become public?

JT: There’s records at the WIV. There’s the underlying documentation of the ODNI report. People have a million FOIA requests out. It took a year-plus of FOIA litigation to get the conversations that led to the Proximal Origin paper.

I personally, would really like to see what DOE has on this question, since they are a very highly regarded scientific agency with a lot of expertise. What do they have, what does the FBI have? Why does that lead them to believe that this was a lab leak? What did the other agency have that make them feel otherwise?  We need to see the evidence.

And it’s going to take — after seeing what ODNI released last week — it’s clear that it’s going to take further congressional action and/or a lot of FOIA lawsuits to get the kind of information that might shed light, one way or the other, but it’s something the public deserves to know, you know? We deserve to see what’s going on here, instead of just getting brief summaries and hedging from these federal agencies, 

RG: And there’s this hearing scheduled for July 11, with a lot of the people that are on this email chain. What’s your sense of what might be learned from that? And do you have any reporting on whether or not those scientists intend to appear?

JT: I don’t know yet, I think that’s an open question, whether they’re going to appear. It’s only the U.S.-based Proximal Origin authors who were asked to come, or who, at least, who will likely come.

My hope is that the hearing doesn’t explode into theatrics and the like. I mean, it would really be nice to hear from these scientists. You know, they’ve done a lot of media interviews, but rarely with people asking hard questions.

And so, I think it’d be really nice to hear them respond to some hard questions in an open forum. But I don’t know if they’ll accept. And if they don’t accept, I don’t know whether subpoenas will follow, but I will definitely be watching, and likely reporting on it.

RG: Well, Jimmy, terrific work, and thanks so much for joining me here. 

JT: Thanks for having me, Ryan. I really appreciate it.

RG: That was Jimmy Tobias, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed as a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is the Intercepts editor-in-chief. And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

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