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WASHINGTON — The White House said Thursday that it stood by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Biden, who has faced renewed attacks this week from conservatives over the extent to which the U.S. biomedical establishment funded potentially dangerous research into bat coronaviruses in Chinese laboratories.
Asked on Thursday by a Fox News reporter whether Fauci’s job was safe, despite new revelations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded curtly, with a single word: “Correct.”
Fauci has previously said that the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of which he is the longtime head, did not allow Chinese laboratories to conduct gain-of-function research through American grants. Some people believe that such research, which boosts viruses in order to study their behavior, led to the creation of the pathogen known as SARS-CoV-2 at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or another laboratory sometime in late 2019.
The focus on Fauci this week is related to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and published by the investigative news site the Intercept. The documents included details of a $3.1 million 2014 grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization that has been the focus of intense scrutiny over its close partnership with China and because of the ardent rejections by its chief executive, Peter Daszak, of any suggestion that a scientific accident there may have caused the pandemic.
EcoHealth Alliance used $599,000 of the $3.1 million grant to fund a study into bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has itself been the focus of both conspiratorial and legitimate questions. Researchers there worked on a strain of coronavirus called WIV1, according to the Intercept.
Federal officials denied that the research conducted with U.S. funds in Wuhan met gain-of-function criteria. “NIH has never approved any research that would make a coronavirus more dangerous to humans,” an agency spokesperson told Yahoo News. “The research we supported in China, where coronaviruses are prevalent, sought to understand the behavior of coronaviruses circulating in bats that have the potential to cause widespread disease.”
The existence of WIV1 is hardly a secret, but the revelations in the Intercept’s reporting seem to challenge Fauci’s earlier statements that the U.S. biomedical establishment has never funded gain-of-function research in China. “This is a road map to the high-risk research that could have led to the current pandemic,” one researcher told the Intercept.
Still, there is no evidence that research into WIV1 led to the creation of SARS-CoV-2. Nor is there evidence that Fauci, who first gained renown in the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, acted improperly or intentionally misrepresented U.S. partnerships.
Nevertheless, the Intercept revelations are sure to raise new questions, especially given signs that the pandemic may persist even into 2022. Peter Navarro, who served as a top aide of former President Donald Trump, often clashed with Fauci and, on Thursday, called the widely respected immunologist a “stone cold liar” on Twitter. “He belongs in an orange jumpsuit, not a lab coat,” Navarro opined.
Members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have lambasted Fauci and other scientists for misleading the public about the origins of the pandemic.
“These documents are a smoking gun that indicate he not only failed to be forthcoming, but that he also lied to the American people about his organization’s support for this risky research,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., who also called on Fauci to resign.
So did Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a potential presidential candidate in 2024, who, like McCarthy, said that Fauci should “face a congressional inquiry.”
Should Republicans retake either chamber of Congress in next year’s elections, they are all but certain to launch such inquiries, given how much animosity Fauci has inspired among conservatives.
The attacks on Fauci aside, the notion of a lab escape has gained increasing legitimacy in Washington, as well as from the medical establishment. Some conservatives, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., have maintained that the coronavirus is a Chinese “bioweapon.” Baseless as such accusations are, they have continued to thrive, as researchers across the world put pressure on China to be more forthright about how the pandemic began.
Addressing the matter on Thursday in the White House briefing room, Psaki not only defended Fauci but the institutions highlighted in the documents obtained by the Intercept. “NIH has never approved any research that would make a coronavirus more dangerous to humans,” she said, adding that there were many coronavirus strains other than the one that has infected 219 million people around the world.
A recent report by the U.S. intelligence community, ordered by President Biden, yielded no new insights into how the coronavirus originated. A senior administration official told Yahoo News: “It is imperative for the global scientific community to understand the genesis of this pandemic.” The official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, said that China’s “behavior during this pandemic has demonstrated that it has not yet matured into a responsible member of the international scientific community,” adding that the United States would continue to press Beijing for “a full, transparent, evidence-based, expert-led study.”
Chinese authorities have steadfastly refused to take any responsibility for the coronavirus, which many believe originated in a market where exotic animals were sold. They have gone as far as to suggest falsely that the pathogen originated at Fort Detrick, a bioweapons facility in Maryland.
In 2020, Fauci’s standing was often called into question, after he emerged as the chief messenger for the Trump administration on the pandemic in the spring. He often appeared to infuriate a president not known to cede the limelight. Although the relationship between Trump and Fauci deteriorated in the second half of 2020, Trump resisted the calls of his supporters to fire Fauci, although he did silence and marginalize him.
Fauci has served every president since Ronald Reagan.
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