Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), defended his agency’s decision of awarding millions of dollars to an organization that has funded risky virus research in Wuhan, China.
The New York-based nonprofit, EcoHealth Alliance, received roughly $3 million in grants from the NIAID in late September, the largest annual amount that the agency has awarded the group, despite scrutiny over EcoHealth’s partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the facility that many believe may have started the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If something is peer-reviewed, gets a high recommendation for funding, you can’t arbitrarily decide, ‘I just don’t want to fund it’ because people don’t like them,” Fauci said in an Oct. 4 virtual webinar hosted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism.
“If they ever brought that to court, they could sue us and win that in a microsecond. So you’ve got to be careful,” Fauci said earlier in the webinar.
The new grants come just weeks after the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to which NIAID belongs, terminated an Ecohealth sub-award to the Wuhan lab. The NIH told the House Oversight Committee that the Chinese facility had twice declined the agency’s requests to hand over laboratory records so that it could review the research.
Fending Off Criticism
The Wuhan facility, during the 2018 to 2019 grant period, conducted experiments that made bat coronaviruses more lethal, which some experts say met the definition of gain-of-function research—experiments that make a virus more deadly or infectious.
Asked why he was confident that “EcoHealth is a good funding partner” despite criticism about its lack of transparency over virus research, Fauci insisted that the two were separate matters.
“It’s kind of like saying that there is a grant from an institution in the United States, that something really bad about that grant, and therefore, you shouldn’t give any funding to any other element of that institution,” he said. “You’ve got to be fair, and you’ve got to go by process, not arbitrarily deciding whether you want to fund something or not.”
However, the new grants have drawn heavy backlash from Republican lawmakers who indicated that a COVID-19 origin probe would be a key priority if they win control of the House or Senate after the Nov. 8 midterm election.
In light of the new NIH grant, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced legislation on Sept. 29 that seeks to stop federal funding to EcoHealth.
“Giving taxpayer money to EcoHealth to study pandemic prevention is like paying a suspected arsonist to conduct fire safety inspections,” she previously told The Epoch Times.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, called it “madness.”
“EcoHealth Alliance and Peter Daszak should not be getting a dime of taxpayer funds until they are completely transparent. Period,” she said in a statement.
Fauci, who’s retiring in December, said he would have “no problem” giving more testimony to a Republican-controlled Congress.
“I am a big believer in oversight,” he said.
Lab Leak Theory
Emails show that Fauci had sought to play down the lab leak theory in the early period of the pandemic. In April 2020, he told then-NIH director Francis Collins that the hypothesis is “a shiny object” that would go away in time.
At the event, Fauci stood by his comments in the email, saying that he didn’t think he misjudged the public’s ongoing interest in the lab leak theory.
“There’s always the concern, and I have kept a completely open mind about the possibility that there may have been a lab leak,” but the “lab leak is a theory with no evidence whatsoever,” he said.
Fauci cited an article, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” published in March 2020 that argued in favor of a natural origin of COVID-19.
“I was part of the group that called together a bunch of experienced evolutionary virologists to seriously look at that,” he said. “They went over the epidemiological, the virological data, and they published in the peer review high ranked journals their conclusion that it is most likely a natural occurrence.”
Prior to the release of the paper, email communications between Fauci and Kristian Andersen, lead author of the paper, showed that Andersen had observed some unusual features making up the virus that causes COVID-19.
“One has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered,” he told Fauci in an email on Jan. 31, 2020, a day before he and Fauci joined a conference call about the paper.
The March 2020 Nature article shows a number of edits compared to a February version that appeared online, with changes in language that strengthened the natural origins narrative.