Key researchers who testified before the House subcommittee investigating the origin of Covid-19 virus last week misled Congress about the nature of a multimillion-dollar grant that was pending at the time they joined a critical conference with Drs. Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci in February 2020, according to National Institutes of Health documents.
The debate over the origin of the novel coronavirus has also evolved into a meta-debate over how the narrative supporting a natural emergence was initially crafted in the winter and spring of 2020. That inquiry focuses on a group of scientists who spoke confidentially with Collins and Fauci — then the heads of the National Institutes for Health and its sub-agency National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, respectively — in February and quickly began writing a paper that would set the tone for public understanding of the virus’s origin for a year or more. On the call, the scientists suggested they leaned toward a lab escape as the most likely scenario, but they made a U-turn later that day when they began drafting it. The paper eventually ran in Nature Medicine under the headline “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2.” Fauci and Collins were kept in the loop on the preparation of the paper, and Fauci highlighted it to the public in order to dismiss the notion of a lab escape.
House Republicans convened a hearing last week on the conference call and the resulting paper, and one of the major sources of contention was the extent to which Fauci and Collins held financial sway over the scientists, who also had a grant application pending before the NIH. Democrats repeatedly characterized the argument in terms of a “bribe” being paid in exchange for a paper that exonerated a lab in Wuhan, China, that the NIH had been funding to do the kind of risky research that could spark a pandemic. Rather than a bribe, though, the question is one of leverage.
Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research, who testified at the hearing along with Bob Garry of Tulane University, preempted the charge in his opening statement, telling the committee he had no live fundraising requests before Fauci’s agency at the time of the call. “There is no connection between the grant and the conclusions we reached about the origins of the pandemic. We applied for this grant in June 2019, and it was scored and reviewed by independent experts in November 2019,” Andersen testified. “Based on the actual timeline of this grant, it is not possible that the merit-based federal grant awarding process was influenced by a call in February, 2020.”
Democrats, including Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, defended the integrity of the scientists. Under her questioning, Andersen reiterated that the grant application could not possibly have influenced his willingness to publicly entertain the chance that risky research at the Wuhan lab may have led to the pandemic. “If the grant were scored and reviewed as part of the NIH’s transparent merit-based process in November 2019, is there any way that the awarding of the grant could have been used as a bribe during the February 1, 2020 conference call?” Dingell asked.
“Excluding the possibility that somebody is a time traveler, no, that is just not possible given the timeline,” Andersen insisted. Garry added: “I agree.”
Both knew that was false. And newly uncovered messages indicate Andersen was keenly aware that perception of him among gain-of-function research advocates such as Fauci hinged on how he responded to the question of Covid’s origin. Andersen and Garry did not respond to requests for comment.
Setting aside Dingell’s hyperbolic term “bribe,” the records she pointed to in her questioning undermine Andersen’s claim. It is true that by November, the grant had cleared the independent review process, but it was still pending final approval from the director, in this case Fauci.
The NIH is clear about its process. “Council recommends an application for funding. NIAID makes the final decision,” the agency explains. “The main NIAID advisory Council must recommend an application for funding before we can award a grant, although the Institute makes the final funding decision,” the agency goes on.
The grant wasn’t finalized until May 21, 2020. In other words, it was on Fauci’s desk at the time of the conference call. Andersen’s lab announced the funding in a press release in August 2020, nine months after he claimed it was already finalized. The press release describes it as a “new $8.9 million grant.”
“The five-year grant, awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will establish the West African Emerging Infectious Disease Research Center, bringing together clinicians, epidemiologists, bioinformaticians and biologists from the United States, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal,” reports the press release.
For Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and critic of Andersen’s, the timing put Fauci and Collins at an extraordinary advantage in their interactions with the scientists. Building the West African center had been a longtime goal of Andersen and Garry. “The post-Council administrative review stage plays an especially large role in proposals for multi-investigator center grants and program project grants, for which programmatic fit and programmatic balance are deemed as important as scientific impact,” Ebright told The Intercept. “Andersen and Garry had a proposal for a center grant in the post-Council administrative-review stage in January-May 2020, making them maximally susceptible to pressure from Fauci and Collins.”
Ebright added that the pending grant proposal would not have needed to have been brought up explicitly on the call or in other conversations. “This would have been known to, and clear to, both the potential grantees (Andersen and Garry) and the potential grantors (Fauci and Collins) on the February 1, 2020 telecon, and would not need to be mentioned to be motivational,” he wrote in an email.
Indeed, Slack messages between Andersen and other scientists show Andersen was concerned that his inquiry into a potential lab leak could get him branded as a “crackpot” — a concern that had major professional implications given the status of the grant. The House Republican subcommittee investigating the pandemic’s origin accidentally released the messages following last week’s hearing.
On February 2, the day after the conference call, and after they had written a first draft of the article that would dismiss the lab leak, Andersen and virologist Andrew Rambaut exchanged notes on Slack. At issue was criticism being directed at the eventual authors of the Proximal Origin paper — Andersen, Garry, and Rambaut among them — by virologists Christian Drosten, known as “Germany’s Fauci,” and Ron Fouchier, an advocate of gain-of-function research. They had both been on the call, with Fouchier making the case against speculating about a lab origin. Fouchier is a controversial figure in the field of virology for his hyper-risky research on bird flu and his aggressive hostility to restrictions on gain-of-function research.
Fouchier elaborated his concerns in an email he sent after the call: He was nervous that the group, by even allowing for the remote possibility of a lab leak while elevating natural origin, would make it more difficult to do such risky research in the future. He helped draft the paper but ultimately urged it not be published.
Andersen understood their motivations. “Both Ron and Christian are much too conflicted to think about this issue straight – to them, the hypothesis of accidental lab escape is so unlikely and not something they want to consider. The main issue is that accidental escape is in fact highly likely – it’s not some fringe theory,” Andersen wrote on Slack. “I don’t think we should reply back on the current thread as he effectively shut down the discussion there and I think will just lead to a shouting match – Christian and Ron made it clear that they think this is a crackpot theory.”
Around the time of the call, a pre-print paper from obscure researchers was uploaded to a scientific platform laying out the hypothesis that the novel coronavirus appeared to have been engineered in a lab because of some similarities to the HIV virus. The paper was quickly withdrawn and is not today considered credible, but at the time it caused a stir.
It came up on Slack. “I just had a phone call from Mark Perkins at WHO who was asking me about the HIV paper – the [director general] had rung him and wanted to know if it was true. Told Mark it was complete bollocks and why it was. But twitter is going crazy,” Rambaut wrote on Slack.
“Tony Fauci called me yesterday afternoon with the exact same question and I gave him the exact same answer,” Andersen responded, bolding the words. “It’s really disturbing we have to explain away that paper – it’s complete and utter bollocks. My fear is that the likes of Christian and Ron puts the question that’s being asked here into the same category – I’m pretty sure by now they think I’m a complete crackpot.”
It’s unclear from Andersen’s wording if by “they” he meant Drosten and Fouchier, Fauci and Collins, or all of them, as they all aligned on the issue. The most plausible reading of the message is that Andersen is referring to Fauci and Collins, because in his prior sentence, he noted that Drosten and Fouchier were attacking the lab leak theory with as much fervor as others had attacked the HIV “bollocks.”
Andersen’s acknowledgment is crucial to understanding his mindset as he went from warning that the virus appeared to have emerged from a lab to claiming loudly the exact opposite. If Fauci believed Andersen was a “crackpot” who was skeptical of gain-of-function, or GOF, research, it’s reasonable to think such a belief would influence Fauci’s pending funding decision. Fauci was and remains an outspoken supporter of such research, even arguing a decade earlier that its benefits were worth the risk of a pandemic.
Rambaut continued on the theme: “Ron had me clocked as an anti-GOF fanatic already. Although my primary concern is that these experiments are done in Cat 3 labs.”
“Interesting,” Andersen responded. “I’m all for GOF experiments, I think they’re really important* – however performing these in BSL-3 (or less) is just completely nuts!” (Rambaut and Andersen were referencing biosafety level 3 laboratories.)
He continued: “I have evolved a bit on this point [regarding the benefits of GOF research]. I used to think they’re really important, but I’m actually not so sure anymore. I thought it was really important that we understood whether e.g., avian influenza could be transmissible between humans – and importantly which steps (and how many) would need to be involved – but honestly I’m not sure that type of knowledge is at all actionable, while, of course, being exceptionally dangerous. It only takes one mistake.”
Andersen, returning to the question of Covid’s origin, repeated that “Natural selection and accidental release are both plausible scenarios explaining the data – and a priori should be equally weighed as possible explanations. The presence of a furin [cleavage site] a posteriori” — the furin cleavage site was the characteristic of the virus that the scientists thought was indicative of engineering or other lab origin — “moves me slightly more towards accidental release, but it’s well above my paygrade to call the shots on a final conclusion.”
In fact, Andersen would be listed as the lead author on the conclusive paper. Rambaut responded by warning of the geopolitical fallout of such a claim. “Given the shit show that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is we should say that given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possible distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content to with ascribing it to natural processes.”
“Yup, I totally agree that’s a very reasonable conclusion,” Andersen responded. Although I hate when politics is injected into science – but it’s impossible not to, especially given the circumstance. We should be sensitive to that.”