The director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Wednesday denied rejecting the theory that the virus that causes COVID-19 escaped from a laboratory while labeling the theory an “extraordinary” one.
Dr. Francis Collins, who was appointed to the post during the Obama administration, sent an email to people inside the NIH in April 2020 with the subject line “conspiracy gains momentum,” according to a newly released batch of messages.
The body of the email was entirely redacted, save for a link to a Mediaite article about a Fox News segment.
During the segment, Fox host Bret Baier said sources had told him that it was increasingly likely that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes COVID-19, started in a lab in Wuhan, China.
“They’re saying it occurred naturally because China was trying to show that they could be as good or better than the U.S. in handling viruses, discovering viruses, and that this was a botched effort to contain this and it got out to the population,” Baier said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads an infectious disease office within the NIH, responded to Collins’s email, but the text was redacted.
Pressed on his seeming dismissal of the lab leak theory on Wednesday, Collins said that the reference to conspiracy theories was aimed at claims that Chinese scientists engineered the virus to use as a bioweapon, despite Baier clearly saying his sources did not agree with that theory.
“That doesn’t fit with what we know about this particular viral genome. Another was that NIH had somehow been complicit in the generation of this dangerous virus. And I can tell you categorically that did not happen,” Collins said on Fox’s “The Story.”
“Then there was this other idea that maybe it was an accident, a lab leak, that the institute had been studying this virus that had happened somehow in nature and it got loose. I never rejected that one, although there was no evidence to support it,” he added. He also said that the lab leak theory was an “extraordinary claim.”
Collins offered a similar take during a congressional hearing last month. He told Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who asked about the lab leak theory, that he believes “the most likely scenario is this was a natural occurrence,” adding: “but no one knows that 100 percent for sure.”
“We cannot exclude the possibility of some type of lab accident,” Collins said.
Both Collins and Fauci have denied funding “gain of function” research, or experiments aimed at increasing the transmissibility or virulence of a virus, at the lab in Wuhan. However, documents show about $600,000 of a grant given to the EcoHealth Alliance was channeled to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to research coronavirus in bats in 2014.
“The sub-grant was about $600,000 over a period of five years. So it was a modest amount. And the purpose of it was to study the animal-human interface, to do surveillance, and to determine if these bat viruses were even capable of transmitting infection to humans,” Fauci recently told members of Congress.
In one hearing, Fauci acknowledged that U.S. officials could not be certain the funding was not used for other purposes. “You never know,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on Fox Wednesday that the emails point to a “conflict of interest” and “if it turns out this virus came from the Wuhan lab, which it looks like it did, that there’s a great deal of culpability in that he was a big supporter of the funding.”
Scientists have not been able to prove the origins of the virus. U.S. intelligence officials are also not sure where it came from.
Tom Ozimek contributed to this report.