Did the NIAID Fund Research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

Understanding contradictory claims from Rand Paul and Anthony Fauci.

During a Senate hearing on May 11, Sen. Rand Paul questioned Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about whether the United States had provided funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Fauci responded that “We do not send money now to the Wuhan Virology Institute.”

“We did under your tutelage,” said Paul. “We were sending it through EcoHealth. It was a sub-agency and a sub-grant.”

As noted in a fact check from last July, Paul is correct on this point: While the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not receive a direct grant from NIAID, the organization Fauci heads up did provide a five-year grant in 2014 for research into “the risk of bat coronavirus emergence” to EcoHealth, a nongovernmental research group. EcoHealth was granted $3.7 million over those five years, of which about $600,000 went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Fauci went on to claim that “We have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Gain-of-function research examines how viruses could become deadlier and more viral. The purpose of this research is to prevent potentially catastrophic strains of viruses by developing therapeutics to treat and block the virus. Paul suggested in the hearing that COVID-19 may have been the result of such research with bat coronaviruses in China.

Gain-of-function research is controversial given the inherent dangers of enhancing viruses’ transmissibility and deadliness, and government funding of new gain-of-function projects was paused on October 16, 2014, five months after EcoHealth’s grant was approved. Guidelines issued by the Trump administration in December 2017 ended the moratorium on gain-of-function research. 

While Fauci, EcoHealth Alliance, and the National Institutes of Health all told PolitiFact in February that the EcoHealth funds directed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not go to gain-of-function research, PolitiFact also noted that a paper published thanks to those funds described gain-of-function research techniques.

Reporting from the Washington Post shows that funding from the NIAID went to an EcoHealth project carried out by the Wuhan Institute that involved creating novel coronaviruses to see how easily they could cross over from animal to human cells. Robert Kessler, communications manager for EcoHealth, denies that this research meets the definition of gain-of-function.

“So gain-of-function research refers specifically to the manipulation of human viruses so as to be either more easily transmissible or to cause worse infection or be easier spread,” Kessler told The Dispatch Fact Check in an interview. 

“So first of all, our work with those viruses in question, those are bat viruses, those are not human viruses,” said Kessler.

Gain-of-function research is  actually much broader than manipulating only human viruses. Gain-of-function research with avian flu and ferrets in 2011 prompted debate about the ethical concerns of gain-of-function, despite the fact that it wasn’t a “human” virus being manipulated. Viruses can make the leap from animals to humans, making such a distinction unnecessary in the course of conducting gain-of-function research with animal viruses. In the 2011 experiments, scientists created a strain of avian flu capable of spreading to ferrets, prompting concerns about it spreading to other mammals including humans. And in the case of the EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute collaboration, the project was expressly meant to examine bat coronaviruses for the potential to cross over to human cells—the potential for human infection makes the fact that they were examining animal viruses moot. The 2014 rule change about gain-of-function research restricted projects “that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.” Whether or not those viruses started with humans or animals was irrelevant.

Kessler also stated that the research underwritten by EcoHealth at the Wuhan Institute of Virology involved genomic sequencing of bat viruses, not the creation of actual viruses. He explained that coronaviruses are easy to study because of their predictability in how they bond to human cells. The virus that causes the COVID-19 disease is SARS-CoV-2, which Kessler said “has a spike protein on the [angiotensin-converting enzyme 2] ACE2 receptor, which is what allows it to bind to human cells.” He gave this as an example of the type of research performed in the EcoHealth/Wuhan project, as the ACE2 receptor can be seen in genomic sequencing of the virus, allowing scientists to easily determine if that virus would be transmissible to humans given coronaviruses’ predictable bonding process. 

“What you do is if you take that genomic structure or a virus—let’s say it does not have an A2 receptor—if you bind a known sequence of a receptor that can bind by proteins just to see if it would mutate and develop that what it could look like, you then have a quote, unquote ‘a chimeric virus,’ but it’s genomic data of a chimeric virus, it’s a hypothetical virus. And that sequencing can be provided to laboratories that do develop either antibody treatments, therapeutics, vaccines, you know, what have you,” Kessler told The Dispatch Fact Check. “You’re not creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a virus, but you’re making kind of a Frankenstein’s monster of a mapping of a virus. It’s more theory than it is reality.”

When asked if the Wuhan Institute of Virology was using this genomic mapping to create live viruses, Kessler stated: “With our collaboration, no it was not. I obviously don’t know everything that was happening at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In the interest of truth, I can’t give you a definitive answer to that question. But no, it was not a part of the collaboration that we had, specifically because it would not have been permitted from our funding from the NIH.”

Newsweek and the Washington Post both reported last year that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was engaging in gain-of-function research. Even if researchers weren’t doing so in their project with EcoHealth, it’s not known for what purposes the Wuhan Institute used the EcoHealth genomic mapping outside of their collaboration. 

In summation: Paul is correct that funds awarded to EcoHealth by the NIAID ended up being used for projects at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While EcoHealth and the NIAID deny that their projects involved gain-of-function research, reporting indicates that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was engaging in such research. However, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is a result of such research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or elsewhere. While the World Health Organization suggests that it is “extremely unlikely” the virus was manmade, this  has not been definitively confirmed, either. Fauci said during the hearing that he is “fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China.”

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