At a July 20 Senate hearing, Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, once again had a testy exchange over whether the U.S. funded gain-of-function research in China, with each man accusing the other of “lying.”
Paul also suggested that the research was tied to “4 million people dying around the world” from COVID-19, but then backed off the implication, saying, “No one’s saying those viruses” studied in the paper in question “caused it.”
Most of the exchange was like a flashback to the clash between the two men at a May 11 Senate hearing, which we’ve written about. But the senator also made a false claim about theories on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
Paul said that “all the evidence is pointing that it came from the lab,” but there is no evidence linking the novel coronavirus to a lab — only speculation. As we’ve explained, many scientists with expertise in coronaviruses consider a lab escape unlikely and a natural spillover of the virus from an animal to a human the most likely scenario, based on the data we have so far. Several of those scientists summarized their reasoning in a July 7 paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed. Update, Aug. 19: The paper was published in the journal Cell on Aug. 18.
We’ll recap here what we’ve written about the contention between Paul and Fauci. For more, we refer readers to our two stories on these topics: “The Wuhan Lab and the Gain-of-Function Disagreement” and “The Facts – and Gaps – on the Origin of the Coronavirus.”
As we wrote in May, there’s no dispute that some U.S. funding went to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. The disagreement is over whether the research the lab conducted with the money was gain-of-function research.
Nearly $600,000 from a National Institutes of Health grant to the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance went to the Wuhan lab, a collaborator on the six-year project to study the risk of the future emergence of coronaviruses from bats. The grant was canceled in April 2020.
The NIH, EcoHealth Alliance and the lead researcher in Wuhan all say the experiments weren’t gain-of-function — a type of research the U.S. government generally defined in 2014 as aiming to “increase the ability of infectious agents to cause disease by enhancing its pathogenicity or by increasing its transmissibility.”
There’s no evidence that Fauci lied to Congress, as Paul asserted in the July 20 hearing, given that the NIH unequivocally backs up Fauci’s statement that the grant-backed research “was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain-of-function.”
In a May 19 statement, NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said that “neither NIH nor NIAID have ever approved any grant that would have supported ‘gain-of-function’ research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans.”
Scientists have differing opinions on what counts as gain-of-function research, however, and which experiments would yield valuable insights into pathogens and how to combat them, and which are not worth the risks.
Paul cited Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University and a critic of gain-of-function research, who disagrees with the NIH. Ebright has said that the EcoHealth/Wuhan lab research “was — unequivocally — gain-of-function research.” And Paul cited a 2017 paper, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens partly thanks to funding from that EcoHealth Alliance grant.
The paper was published shortly before the U.S. government lifted a three-year pause on gain-of-function research “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,” per the White House’s 2014 announcement.
Paul, July 20: This research matches, indeed epitomizes the definition of gain-of-function research, done entirely in Wuhan, for which there was supposed to be a federal pause. Dr. Fauci, knowing that it is a crime to lie to Congress, do you wish to retract your statement of May 11th, where you claimed that the NIH never funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan.
Fauci: Sen. Paul, I have never lied before the Congress, and I do not retract that statement. This paper that you were referring to was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain-of-function.
Again, the NIH says the EcoHealth grant didn’t fund gain-of-function research. “No dispensation was needed as no gain-of-function research was being conducted,” a spokesman for EcoHealth told us.
The 2017 paper, authored primarily by Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers including Shi Zhengli, determined that bat coronaviruses in a cave in Yunnan, China, had “all of the building blocks” of the SARS coronavirus, which caused an outbreak in 2003. Shi is famous for her work tracking down the origins of the SARS epidemic.
The authors “speculate that the direct ancestor” of the SARS virus may have been a result of recombination — or the natural combining of genetic material — of precursors of these bat coronaviruses. And the authors found that the bat coronaviruses had the potential for direct transmission to humans.
A few of their experiments combined different elements of viruses to better understand what’s required to infect human cells. Specifically, the 2017 research used the backbone of WIV1, a bat SARS-like virus reported in 2013, and swapped in the spike protein of two newly identified bat coronaviruses to see if they, like WIV1, can use the human ACE2 receptor to enter human cells. The researchers found that both chimeric viruses could use ACE2 to infect and replicate in human cells in culture. (The researchers attempted to make six other chimeric viruses, but when put into monkey cells the viral constructs did not replicate.)
Is that gain-of-function? Again, there are different definitions and opinions on that. We reached out to the NIH asking for a more detailed explanation of why the 2017 paper didn’t meet its definition, and we’ll update this story if we get a response.
We’ll note that Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa who studies coronaviruses, told us that in the type of research conducted under the EcoHealth grant “these viruses are almost always attenuated,” meaning weakened. He also said that making a virus that could infect human cells in a lab doesn’t mean the virus is more infectious for humans. Viruses adapt to the cell culture, he said, and may grow well in a cell culture but then not actually infect animals very well.
For her part, Shi told the New York Times in June that her lab had never conducted experiments “that enhance the virulence of viruses.”
The Origins of SARS-CoV-2
In the July 20 hearing, Paul, again, tied the U.S. funding of the Wuhan lab to the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and after the hearing, the hashtag #FauciLiedPeopleDied began trending on Twitter. But as Fauci correctly said, there’s no evidence the lab had a coronavirus that could possibly be manipulated enough to lead to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to several experts. Paul then said he wasn’t implying that.
Here’s part of that exchange:
Paul: It’s a dance, and you’re dancing around this because you’re trying to obscure responsibility for 4 million people dying around the world from a pandemic.
Fauci: I have to … well, now you’re getting into something. If the point that you are making is that the grant that was funded as a sub award from EcoHealth to Wuhan created SARS-CoV-2, that’s where you were getting. Let me finish. …
Paul: We don’t know if it didn’t come from the lab, but all the evidence is pointing that it came from the lab, and there will be responsibility for those who funded the lab, including yourself. …
Fauci: I totally resent the lie that you are now propagating, senator, because if you look at the viruses that were used in the experiments that were given in the annual reports that were published in the literature, it is molecularly impossible.
Paul: No one’s saying those viruses caused it. No one is … We’re saying they are gain-of-function viruses, because they were animal viruses that became more transmissible in human and you funded it. And you won’t admit the truth. …
Fauci: And you are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individual. I totally resent that.
Paul: It could have been. It could have been.
Fauci: And if anybody is lying here, senator it is you.
There’s no evidence that the Wuhan laboratory, with or without funding from an NIH grant, created SARS-CoV-2.
Many scientists remain open to a lab escape of a natural virus, but fewer entertain the notion that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered. While this cannot be ruled out entirely, multiple coronavirus experts view this as implausible. And the only way SARS-CoV-2 could have come from the lab, whether manipulated or a naturally occurring virus, is if the Wuhan lab was in possession of a virus much more similar to SARS-CoV-2 than the coronaviruses that have been identified.
Robert F. Garry, a virologist at Tulane University School of Medicine, told us a coronavirus would have to be “at least 99%” similar to SARS-CoV-2 and “probably” 99.9% similar “to make that kind of switch in the lab at all.”
“There’s just no evidence,” he said, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology “had anything close to that.”
Shi announced in late January 2020 that a bat virus the lab named RaTG13 shares 96.2% of its genome with SARS-CoV-2, which is the highest percentage of any known virus. But experts say speculation that RaTG13 could have been changed to become SARS-CoV-2 is misplaced.
That’s because RaTG13’s genome still differs from SARS-CoV-2 by more than 1,000 nucleotides. “RaTG13 is too divergent to be this ancestral virus,” David Robertson, the head of viral genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow, told us.
Shi says there is only a genome sequence for RaTG13 anyway — live virus was never isolated from the sample.
Notably, other teams have subsequently found three other bat viruses that are more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 when factoring in viral recombination — although they, too, are not precursors to the virus.
Paul claimed: “We don’t know if it didn’t come from the lab, but all the evidence is pointing that it came from the lab.” That’s not the case.
“On lab-leak, there’s no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab other than the coincidence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology being there,” Robertson told us.
Many scientists who study coronaviruses say what data we do have points to a natural spillover as the likely origin, given the presence of similar viruses circulating in bats, the links of many of the first COVID-19 cases to animal markets in Wuhan and past spillover events with other coronaviruses. But without identification of a near-identical virus in a bat or other animal, scientists cannot be completely certain.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.