WASHINGTON — With questions persisting about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top science adviser to the Biden administration, defended having previously helped fund research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese laboratory where some believe the pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2 originated sometime in 2019, possibly as the result of an accident.
“You gotta go where the action is,” Fauci explained on Tuesday, as he faced questions about the increasingly popular lab-origin theory from Republicans during testimony before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
The action, in this case, was SARS-CoV-1, a coronavirus that originated in bats in the Chinese province of Guangdong in 2002 and then jumped to humans. A total of 8,096 people around the world would become infected with the disease known as SARS, the first pandemic of the 21st century, not to mention the first of a globalized human civilization where ease of travel between densely populated urban centers presented a severe challenge for epidemiologists.
“It would have been almost a dereliction of our duty if we didn’t study this,” Fauci said on Tuesday, meaning that cooperation with Chinese authorities was necessary. “You don’t want to study bats in Fairfax County, [Va.,] to find out what the animal-human interface is that might lead to a jumping of species.” He was alluding to the fact that viruses often originate in areas where the human population pushes into what had previously been wilderness.
At the time of the SARS outbreak, Fauci was head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (he retains that position to this day). NIH Director Francis Collins testified on Tuesday as well. They both defended the NIH funding of a not-for-profit organization called EcoHealth Alliance, which has worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology to gain understanding about how coronaviruses emerge from bats.
In April 2020, the Trump administration suspended a $3.7 million grant to EcoHealth Alliance that involved work on coronaviruses. Later, in August, EcoHealth received $7.5 million from the federal government to study infectious diseases as part of a network of a dozen institutions.
By then, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had become the focus of conspiracy theories and legitimate questions alike. (The two can be difficult to distinguish, given the rampant level of misinformation on the internet.)
In his testimony on Tuesday, Fauci described NIH funding of coronavirus research in China as a “modest collaboration with very respectable Chinese scientists who were world experts.”
Nevertheless, there remains some concern that by funding EcoHealth, the U.S. government could have unwittingly supported “gain-of-function” work at the Wuhan lab. That work involves making a virus more potent or transmittable to study its behavior under different conditions. EcoHealth president Peter Daszak dismissed such allegations, calling them a “good conspiracy theory” in a recent interview with Kaiser Health News.
Daszak said he believes the virus emerged at a wildlife market in Wuhan, a hypothesis that has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, but critics say there is little merit to those conclusions. Proponents of the lab-origin theory have, paradoxically, seemingly gained more adherents as their loudest ally — former President Donald Trump — has receded from public view.
Collins, the NIH director, said on Tuesday that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was “not approved by NIH to do gain-of-function research” through funds channeled from Washington via the EcoHealth Alliance. “We are, of course, not aware of other sources of funds or other activities they might have undertaken outside of what our approved grant allowed.”
Fauci was more blunt. “That categorically was not done,” he said of gain-of-function research having allegedly been conducted in Wuhan. Earlier this month, Fauci sparred with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., over the issue. “The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Fauci said at the time.
Still, a growing number of scientists say that, at the very least, more thorough investigations are needed. Questions of culpability aside, they want to know if an accident occurred, and, if so, what could be done to bolster biosecurity and communication.
Earlier this month, a group of 18 scientists called for a more intensive investigation of the origin of the coronavirus. “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable,” they wrote, noting that in the 313-page WHO report on the origins of the pandemic, only four pages were devoted to the laboratory hypothesis.
That letter was the clearest sign yet that questions about how and where the coronavirus emerged can no longer be dismissed as the stuff of paranoid ideation.
That much was made clear yet again later on Tuesday afternoon, when Fauci faced questions about the pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 at a briefing of the White House coronavirus response team.
“Many of us feel that it is more likely that this is a natural occurrence,” Fauci said, though he admitted there was no way to definitively confirm the zoonotic hypothesis just yet. “And since this is a question that keeps being asked, we feel strongly, all of us, that we should continue with the investigation.”
Andy Slavitt, another top adviser on the pandemic, said it was a “critical priority” for the Biden administration to discover the origins of the coronavirus. He called on China not to impede any future investigation.
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Slavitt said.