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ANALYSIS: What Is Dr. Fauci Trying To Hide From Rand Paul?

(Photo by J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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Many observers were left wondering who was lying last week after a Senate hearing involving Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Dr. Anthony Fauci went haywire.

Paul questioned Fauci about a scientific research technique known as “gain-of-function” (GOF) research, and reminded the doctor that lying to Congress is a federal crime. Fauci denied that his agency had ever been involved in funding GOF research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), arguing that Paul had “no idea” what he was talking about.

Getting to the bottom of this dispute is important not only for understanding where the COVID-19 pandemic may have originated, but for determining how U.S. officials will deal with funding risky scientific research in the future.

It’s helpful to begin with what is not in dispute before discerning the truth from what is. Nobody is in denial of the fact that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), under the leadership of NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Fauci, sent grant money over a period of years to a U.S.-based non-profit called EcoHealth Alliance.

It is not disputed that EcoHealth Alliance sent that grant money to the WIV, which is among the leading facilities conducting research on bat-based coronaviruses in the world. It is also not disputed that some of the research done at the WIV by Dr. Shi Zhengli, China’s infamous “bat lady,” qualified as GOF research.

What is being disputed is whether or not the research that was funded specifically by that NIH money, via EcoHealth, was part of a GOF project. (RELATED: Video Shows Wuhan-Linked Researcher Peter Daszak Describing ‘Killer’ Viruses Altered By ‘Colleagues In China’)

GOF research, in the context of virology, involves making pathogens more infectious in humans, more dangerous to them or both. Advocates for GOF argue it can help scientists better develop vaccines and other remedies to combat dangerous pandemics, while critics say it offers little-to-no upside but presents substantial risk of causing a pandemic.

At the center of Paul and Fauci’s dispute is a 2017 research study conducted by Shi in which bat-based coronaviruses were modified to make them more transmissible to humans. Paul says the work, which was funded by an NIH grant, constitutes GOF research. Fauci says it doesn’t.

Fauci’s defense rests on a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) definition of GOF research released in 2017. By this narrow definition, the WIV research may not qualify as GOF. But plenty of scientists disagree and argue that the HHS definition is so narrow that it allows any GOF research to be conducted without additional review by NIH.

GOF research funding was outlawed by the federal government from 2014 to 2017. When the ban was lifted in 2017, the NIH developed a review process that GOF-related grants would be subjected to in order to ensure they were safe and necessary. This review process, known as the P3CO Review Framework, was not used to oversee Shi’s experiment at the WIV. (RELATED: China Says WHO Should Investigate Fort Detrick In Maryland Instead Of Returning To Wuhan)

Rutgers University microbiologist Richard H. Ebright has stringently argued for years that GOF research is more dangerous than worthwhile, and he says the WIV study is clearly GOF.

“Constructing a novel SARS-related coronaviruses encoding spikes reasonably anticipated, at least in some cases, to have higher affinity for human ACE2 and higher ability to infect human cells most definitely is gain-of-function research of concern,” he has tweeted on multiple occasions.

Others argue that, at least by the HHS definition, Fauci is in the clear. Broad Institute researcher Alina Chan said “The EcoHealth/WIV work did not fall under the 2014 moratorium definition of GOF research. Maybe it falls under some scientists’ definition of GOF, but not the moratorium’s.”

Both Chan and Ebright have publicly argued that the lab-leak theory of COVID-19 origin is plausible, if not likely. That is why Fauci and Paul’s dispute is so important. If the NIH and NIAID failed to properly flag GOF research happening in Wuhan, and that research had some role to play in the origin of a pandemic that has killed millions of people worldwide, Fauci, Collins and others in the U.S. medical establishment would have untold devastation to answer for. Both men have been longtime advocates of GOF research more generally.

The Chinese Communist Party seems intent on not letting anyone get near the truth of what was happening in late 2019 in the Wuhan lab, meaning all of this debate and discussion may prove moot. If it is never proven whether or not the pandemic originated in that lab after the virus was accidentally leaked, it may not particularly matter to most people whether or not Fauci is right or Paul is. (RELATED: ANALYSIS: Did Your Tax Dollars Pay For COVID-19?)

But, going forward, there will be increased debate publicly over what kind of research the United States should be funding and which kinds are too dangerous. Fauci, as a believer in the utility of GOF work, is arguing that it had nothing to do with a potential lab-leak and is safe to continue. He’s doing so on narrow technical grounds, but Paul’s assertion is correct at least by the spirit of the law, if not the letter. In order to keep GOF going and cover any liability if a lab-leak is proven, Fauci must hide that fact from the public as much as possible.