Dr. Francis Collins appeared to acknowledge this week that the U.S. agency he heads funded gain-of-function experiments in Wuhan, China, which runs counter to claims he and a subordinate made earlier this year.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency Collins directs, revealed last week that money it gave to EcoHealth Alliance supported risky experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China that some experts said met the definition of gain-of-function.
The term gain-of-function generally refers to research that increases a biological agent’s pathogenicity or transmissibility. Until last week, the NIH defined it as research that modifies an agent “so that it confers new or enhanced activity to that agent.”
Both Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), claimed earlier this year that the NIH didn’t fund gain-of-function research in China.
“Neither NIH nor NIAID have ever approved any grant that would have supported ‘gain-of-function’ research on coronaviruses,” Collins said in May, though he stipulated that he was only referring to gain-of-function experiments that would have increased the viruses’ “transmissibility or lethality for humans.”
Fauci didn’t include that stipulation when testifying to Congress that month.
“The NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” he said on May 11.
Collins was pressed on the statements during an appearance on CNN this week.
EcoHealth “did some things they should have told us about, but they did not do the kind of gain-of-function research that requires special, high-level oversight,” he said.
NIH was asked if it wanted to clarify his remarks, which appear to undercut Fauci’s previous comments.
Renate Myles, a spokeswoman for Collins, told The Epoch Times in an email that gain-of-function research “is done all the time.”
“For example, cancer immunotherapy, where a cancer patient is provided new cells that have been genetically or pharmacologically enhanced to ‘gain’ the function needed to attack the cancer. Most ‘gain of function’ research studies do not raise significant biosafety and biosecurity risks. So saying something is ‘gain of function’ alone doesn’t really mean anything,” Myles wrote.
Like Collins, Myles focused on the Department of Health and Human Services framework that defines research requiring special oversight. That research must be “reasonably anticipated to create, transfer or use potential pandemic pathogens resulting from the enhancement of a pathogen’s transmissibility and/or virulence in humans.”
Jonathan Latham, executive director of The Bioscience Research Project, said the NIH is obfuscating the issue.
“When people discuss gain-of-function research they are never talking about cancer. They are talking about actual or potential human pathogens,” Latham wrote in an email.
“Francis Collins is obfuscating too, but in a different way. In Wuhan, research funded by NIH studied live MERS virus, an actual human pandemic pathogen, and live SARS-like coronaviruses from bats. These SARS coronaviruses were ones that the researchers believed to be potential pandemic pathogens. If Francis Collins thinks that such research does not require special oversight I do not know what research he thinks does require special oversight,” he wrote.
“In all, it seems that NIH is calculatedly deploying two working definitions of gain-of-function research that it is switching at will. One is so broad as to be meaningless and the other is so narrow as to encompass little or no actual research.”
Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director at the NIH, told lawmakers last week that the agency determined the research in question didn’t require enhanced oversight. He also claimed the viruses studied in China couldn’t have been the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though information on most of the viruses sampled in Wuhan in recent years hasn’t been shared with the public.
“It is molecularly impossible to derive SARS-CoV-2 from any of the strains described in the EcoHealth documents available to the public so far. But the question is what other work was being done,” Alina Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, wrote on Twitter.
The NIH produced the documents after receiving inquiries from lawmakers on multiple panels, including Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
“In my assessment, Dr. Collins appears to be invoking the letter of the law on gain of function but clearly evading the spirit of the law. That’s why it is so important to determine exactly what NIH was supporting in Wuhan,” Griffith told The Epoch Times via email. “I have asked for lots of information from NIH, but the agency has not provided most of it. Dr. Collins’ comments show why we need more details—to make sure the letter of the law does not allow the spirit of the law to be violated.”
“We now know for certain that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins have been misleading the American people for months,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a recent statement. “The documents released show that NIH was in fact funding gain-of-function research in China through EcoHealth Alliance. It is also clear there are significant failures at the NIH to properly oversee grant funding.”
EcoHealth officials didn’t immediately respond to requests from The Epoch Times for comment.