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Anthony Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) got into a heated debate at a Senate health committee hearing on Tuesday, clashing over whether funding from the National Institutes of Health was used for risky "gain-of-function" research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Why it matters: Questions remain about the origins of the coronavirus and the so-called "lab leak hypothesis" — the theory that the virus resulted from experiments in the Wuhan lab that accidentally spilled over, which the head of the World Health Organization has said should be investigated further.
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Context: China's Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located just miles from the market where the first COVID-19 outbreak was detected, previously received funding from Fauci's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance.
The EcoHealth grant partially funded research at WIV that involved analyzing bat specimens collected from caves in China to study their potential for infecting humans. EcoHealth's work in China started in the aftermath of the 2002–2004 SARS epidemic, which also likely originated from bats.
Shi Zhengli, a lead researcher at WIV, was known from public documents to be conducting controversial gain-of-function experiments, which involve genetically modifying viruses to make them more infectious in an effort to better understand them, according to the Washington Post.
Shi has said that the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus that caused the pandemic does not match bat viruses that the lab had earlier sampled from caves in China. However, the Chinese government's lack of transparency about the early days of the outbreak has raised questions that weren't fully answered by a WHO-led investigation earlier this year.
PAUL: "For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the U.S., has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Virology Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create superviruses. This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH. ... Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH lab in Wuhan?"
FAUCI: "With all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect. The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology."
PAUL: "Do you fund Dr. Baric's gain-of-function research?"
FAUCI: "Dr. Baric is not doing gain-of-function research, and if it is, it is according to the guidelines and is being conducted in North Carolina. ... If you look at the grant and if you look at the progress reports, it is not gain-of-function, despite the fact that people tweet that, write about it."
PAUL: "Will you categorically say that the COVID-19 could not have occurred through serial passage in a laboratory?"
FAUCI: "I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I am fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China. However, I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology."
Our thought bubble: Scientists are still uncertain about the ultimate origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But whether the virus spilled over from an animal — still considered the most likely possibility — or because of an accident in a lab, finding the answer matters for preventing the next pandemic.
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