It’s not certain that Dr. Anthony Fauci will recover from this revelation, although one feature of it it isn’t as bad as it sounds in the popular retelling, which began on 28 May with an article in The Australian.
The shorthand version has left the impression that Fauci was somewhat cavalier about the possibility of a pandemic in a 2012 piece he published with the American Society for Microbiology. At Townhall, Katie Pavlich has this excerpt from the Australian article, which quotes Fauci from 2012 (the Australian article is behind a paywall):
Writing in the American Society for Microbiology in October 2012, Dr Fauci acknowledged the controversial scientific research could spark a pandemic.
“In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic?” he wrote. “Many ask reasonable questions: given the possibility of such a scenario – however remote – should the initial experiments have been performed and/or published in the first place, and what were the processes involved in this decision?
“Scientists working in this field might say – as indeed I have said – that the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks.
As they used to say where I come from, them’s fightin’ words. But tracking down the original article by Fauci, I discovered that his discussion was more comprehensive and nuanced. (I assume the article will be left at its current URL for now – it’s at the NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information website – but have archived the content in case it’s needed for verification of this LU article at some point.)
Here is the complete context in which the now viral sentences appear:
In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic? Many ask reasonable questions: given the possibility of such a scenario—however remote—should the initial experiments have been performed and/or published in the first place, and what were the processes involved in this decision?
Scientists working in this field might say—as indeed I have said—that the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks. It is more likely that a pandemic would occur in nature, and the need to stay ahead of such a threat is a primary reason for performing an experiment that might appear to be risky. However, we must respect that there are genuine and legitimate concerns about this type of research, both domestically and globally. We cannot expect those who have these concerns to simply take us, the scientific community, at our word that the benefits of this work outweigh the risks, nor can we ignore their calls for greater transparency, their concerns about conflicts of interest, and their efforts to engage in a dialog about whether these experiments should have been performed in the first place. Those of us in the scientific community who believe in the merits of this work have the responsibility to address these concerns thoughtfully and respectfully.
So Fauci’s point is that a naturally-occurring pandemic is more likely than one that erupts from a lab accident with gain-of-function research.
That’s actually more than just a ranking of risks; it’s also a tacit argument for gain-of-function research, on the premise that a naturally-occurring pandemic will come about through a natural development process in which the infectiousness or intensity of a virus is increased, unaided by human research. If such a possibility is more likely than a lab accident, there’s an argument for the lower-vulnerability lab research that would prepare us better to address an especially high-risk but unexpected virus. Over the latter, we would have little or no control as to how much we knew about its type, or its time or place of appearance.
Read further down and it will be clear that what Fauci is urging is a community-wide effort to engage with health authorities, governments, and the public to establish a framework of costs and benefits for setting priorities.
He was writing at a time when gain-of-function research was emerging as a contentious issue; see the linked citations just above the abstract to his piece. As recounted in many prior reports on the topic, the Obama administration in 2014 imposed a moratorium on government-funded gain-of-function research because of the controversy attending the practice.
A couple of other points need making. One is that Fauci’s 2012 piece was about gain-of-function research on the H5N1 virus. The virus is associated with bats, but it’s an influenza strain rather than a SARS virus.
I suspect all his arguments would be the same if he had been writing about SARS or MERS strains, but the point bears making.
The other is that Fauci referred in the article to the possibility of gain-of-function research being undertaken in labs under less rigorous safety protocols than the Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) standard Western researchers use (and governments require). That was a key element of his reasoning about why there needed to be honest, multi-party discussion of the risks.
There’s no knowing if he would have put China in the less-rigorous-protocol category. The announcement that the Wuhan lab, China’s first BSL4 facility, was officially in operation didn’t come until January 2018, more than five years after Fauci’s 2012 article was published. If he had China in mind in 2012, there’s no way to discern that from the text.
A more lethal shot?
But the timing, as ever, is very interesting. The Australian article also says that unnamed Trump administration officials indicated Fauci is the one who allowed U.S. gain-of-function research to resume, without notification to the National Security Council (i.e., the White House).
According to the Washington Times (notice the date I have put in bold):
In December 2017, NIH announced it would resume funding the gain-of-function research.
According to Friday’s report in the Weekend Australian, citing “multiple Trump administration officials,” that was done without Dr. Fauci notifying America’s political leadership.
“It kind of just got rammed through,” one official told the newspaper.
“I think there’s truth in the narrative that the [National Security Council] staff, the president, the White House chief-of-staff, those people were in the dark that he was switching back on the research,” the official said.
Neither then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo nor National Security Council member Matthew Pottinger was briefed, the Weekend Australian reported.
It’s just absolutely fascinating that the U.S. resumed funding gain-of-function research on viruses just before China’s first BSL4 lab opened formally for business at Wuhan, on 4 January 2018.
That, I want to know more about.
Note that, as LU reported in February 2020, construction of the BSL4 lab was completed about three years earlier, and marked in a ceremony with the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s French partner, Mérieux, in January 2015. (Mérieux did most of the construction, and was a Clinton Global Initiative partner among other distinctions. For a clear statement of the landmarks for the BSL4 lab in 2015 and 2018, see this chronology. Alain Mérieux received a prestigious award from China when the lab was officially opened in January 2018.)
The lab’s completion in 2015 occurred just months before the biotech firm WuXi AppTec, which was then U.S.-based and had been traded on the NYSE since 2007, was taken private in 2015 by a consortium consisting of a Who’s Who of CCP “princelings” and shifted its headquarters to Wuhan. WuXi AppTec now reportedly works with the WIV on biotechnology – and, having been taken private and removed from the NYSE, is no longer under corporate regulation by U.S. federal agencies.
Also in 2015, of course, the often-cited gain-of-function study in which Wuhan researchers partnered with the University of North Carolina reported its findings on SARS viruses.
And as a refresher, recall that the SARS study had to get special permission from U.S. authorities to continue using gain-of-function enhancement after the Obama moratorium was imposed in October 2014. (See the LU link above; same as here.)
That’s quite a number of coincidences in the period 2015 to 2018. There are a few more in the February 2020 LU article. Time to get some answers.