In 2020, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded 11 grants to scientists so they could investigate how and where infectious agents emerge from wildlife and cause illness in humans.
Although the grants were reviewed and scored by groups of independent scientists prior to public disclosure of any outbreak, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan baselessly suggested that former NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci gave scientists one of the grants — worth $9 million — to alter the scientific narrative on how the COVID-19 pandemic started. Key to this shift in opinion, Jordan said, was a Feb. 1, 2020, call involving Fauci and the scientists.
At a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on March 8, Jordan claimed Fauci pressured virologists Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research and Robert Garry of Tulane University to change their minds and support the theory that the virus transferred naturally from animals to humans, rather than originating in a lab. This claim of a quid pro quo has spread widely on social media.
Not only is there no evidence for this, but the timing of the grant is inconsistent with such a claim. Moreover, NIAID directors do not unilaterally decide who gets funding; groups of outside scientists review proposals and provide scores that are the primary determinants of funding.
Andersen and Garry did appear to undergo a shift in early 2020 in their thinking on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They moved from finding the SARS-CoV-2 genome “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” as Andersen put it in an email, to helping author a Nature Medicine paper stating that it was not “a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Fauci said in a Fox News interview on March 9 he has “always kept an open mind” on the origins of COVID-19. Andersen, meanwhile, has explained that his thinking shifted due to factors like speaking with his colleagues and learning more about coronaviruses, not due to any outside pressure to stick to a particular narrative.
The origins of COVID-19 have not been conclusively determined, although most scientists think the virus spilled over from animals into humans. Epidemiological and genomic evidence points to the virus spilling over at least twice at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, which was known to be illegally selling raccoon dogs and other species susceptible to the virus.
On March 16, news reports announced that coronavirus-positive samples collected from the market contained genetic material from raccoon dogs and other animals, further supporting — but not proving — this hypothesis.
Much of the hearing was devoted to rehashing lab leak arguments that many scientists have already said don’t hold water, including the notion that specific features of SARS-CoV-2 suggest the virus was manipulated in a lab and that the virus was already pre-adapted for human transmission.
Scientists who have looked into these questions say nothing about the viral sequence indicates lab tinkering, as we’ve written. Being a pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2 is by definition special, but it’s in no way uniquely human. It infects a wide array of animals and is a generalist virus — and has in fact evolved over time to become better at human-to-human transmission, as the alphabet soup of variants attests.
The idea that the $9 million grant was a reward dates back at least as far as 2021. In May of that year, Rutgers University biologist Richard Ebright tweeted without evidence that there was a “CREID pro quo,” a pun on quid pro quo, involved in the funding of grants for Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases, or CREID.
Fauci, Andersen and Garry all categorically dismiss the claim that the grant was a reward for adhering to a particular narrative about the pandemic. They have also explained that key decisions that led to funding the grant were made prior to February 2020.
“The grant was reviewed by a peer review and put before an independent council and approved before the meeting even took place,” Fauci said during the Fox News interview, referring to the Feb. 1 phone meeting. “So, to assume that they were getting a $9 million grant because of the fact that we tried to get them to change their mind is beyond ludicrous.”
The same day of Fauci’s interview, Andersen also denied the allegations, tweeting: “👇 is exactly right. The idea that there was a ‘preferred narrative’ is false. Read the emails. And papers. In full. The idea that there was a ‘bribe’ to change a narrative is beyond ludicrous. The idea that this was _anything_ other than scientific inquiry is absurd. End of.”
And Garry told us in a March 13 email: “The claims that people like Richard Ebright are making are absurd on their face. They know that this is not how NIH grant reviews work.”
Researchers Say Changes in Thinking Reflect Scientific Process
Three out of four people who testified at the House hearing are proponents of the theory that COVID-19 came from a lab, and none are scientists who have published work investigating the origins of the coronavirus. One of these lab leak proponents was Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Redfield said he was excluded from a Feb. 1, 2020, call with Fauci, Andersen, Garry and others due to his views on the origins of COVID-19. (Fauci has argued that this claim does not add up, as we will explain below.)
Redfield, an infectious disease doctor with a long history of researching HIV, repeatedly invoked his credentials as a virologist. But several of his statements, including that SARS never spread between humans and that SARS-CoV-2 infections began in September 2019, are incorrect or unsupported, scientists pointed out.
Redfield said he told Fauci that his hypothesis was that SARS-CoV-2 “most likely” had a lab origin and that “we need to aggressively investigate both hypotheses.” Redfield also said that he was excluded from the meeting “because I had a different point of view and I was told they made a decision that they would make this confidential until they came up with a single narrative, which I will argue is antithetical to science.”
Jordan and others have argued that this Feb. 1 call was pivotal, causing Andersen, Garry and others to change their minds on COVID-19 origins.
Andersen and Garry’s thoughts on the pandemic do appear to have changed over time. In an email to Fauci sent Jan. 31, 2020, Andersen expressed concern that “some of the features (potentially) look engineered,” referring to the SARS-CoV-2 genome.
Andersen went on, “I should mention that after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike, and myself all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory. But we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change.”
Emails then indicate that Andersen, Fauci, Garry, then-NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, Edward (Eddie) Holmes and Michael (Mike) Ferguson, along with other researchers, were invited to the Feb. 1 call.
After further analysis, Garry, Andersen, Holmes and other scientists drafted a paper that was published in Nature Medicine on March 17, 2020.
“Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” they concluded. Notably, the paper did not entirely dismiss the idea that the virus could have resulted from selection during passage in cells or animals in a laboratory, although the writers explained that they did not find this hypothesis to be plausible.
According to a memo from the Republican staff of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic to the panel’s members, Andersen originally wrote to the journal Nature that Fauci, Collins and scientist Jeremy Farrar “prompted” the authors of the paper to “[work] through much of the (primarily) genetic data to provide agnostic and scientifically informed hypothesis around the origins of the virus.”
Republican staffers also claimed in the memo that the Nature Medicine paper was authored Feb. 4, 2020, citing an email that Holmes wrote on that day. But the email showed that Holmes simply shared “our summary so far” on that date and promised to “finish as soon as we can.”
Jordan said during the hearing: “Three days after they say it came from a lab, they change their position and the only intervening event is a conference call with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins, again, a call that Mr. Redfield was not allowed to be on, the head of CDC and on the coronavirus task force. And then three months later, shazam, they get 9 million bucks from Dr. Fauci. Well, isn’t that something.”
In his recent Fox News interview, Fauci responded to Jordan’s allegation, noting that at the time, he did not have strong opinions about how the coronavirus originated.
“First of all, I wasn’t leaning totally strongly one way or the other. I have always kept an open mind. As the data evolved and evolutionary virologists began to look at the data, it looked much more likely that it was a natural occurrence from an animal reservoir,” he said. “I have always kept a completely open mind that it could be one or the other.”
Andersen told us in a March 13 email: “As I (and others) have stated repeatedly, there was no ‘preferred narrative,’ nor was there a push to only consider a natural origin — Dr. Fauci (or Dr. Collins) simply suggested we consider writing a paper on whatever we found, but otherwise had no role in the drafting, editing, approval, or publication of our paper. The data clearly points to a market origin of the pandemic – that has been clear since February 2020 and additional data have only supported that conclusion further. Although a formal proof is still lacking, and likely will always be lacking, as is the case for virtually all other outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.”
Andersen decided engineering was unlikely as he learned more about coronaviruses, he explained in a New York Times interview published in June 2021. At the time of his Jan. 31 email, he said, he was not aware of other viruses with the same features as SARS-CoV-2.
Speaking in a podcast episode released on March 11, Andersen explained: “It’s really important that we distinguish between what did we know at the time of asking those questions versus what did we know just a few days later after tons of conversations with our colleagues versus new evidence coming in, more analyses being done, all these different things, plus what do we know now today?” Multiple new sources of insight, both publicly documented and not, helped shape his views on the origins of COVID-19, he said.
In response to the idea that Redfield was excluded from the call due to his views, Fauci pointed out on Fox News that “half the people on the call were of the opinion that it might be a lab leak. So, his rationale of why he thought he was excluded is an invalid rationale.”
Fauci also said that he had “nothing to do with who would be on that call,” adding that the call was organized by evolutionary virologists including Andersen and Holmes.
Holmes shared a BBC article on the hearing and tweeted on March 8, “All I can say is that I just don’t remember Redfield’s name coming up when Jeremy Farrar and I were discussing who to have on the very rapidly convened teleconference. I very likely didn’t [know] who the head of the US CDC was (given that I live in Sydney).”
Key Grant Review Step Happened in 2019
Former New York Times journalist Nicholas Wade, who wrote an influential blog post in 2021 about the possibility of a lab leak, also testified at the House hearing. He referenced the claim that the grant was some form of quid pro quo in his written testimony.
Wade’s written testimony prompted Jordan to ask him why he thought the scientists changed their position.
After initially saying, “I don’t know what the reason was,” Wade said, “If you’re looking at the timeline, on May 21, just a few weeks after the Nature Medicine article had come out, two of the signatories of the original email to Dr. Fauci — that’s Dr. Andersen and Dr. Garry — were awarded a $9 million grant.”
“So there’s 9 million reasons why they changed their mind,” Jordan interrupted.
But as we said before, Fauci noted on Fox News that key steps in scoring the grant and approving it for funding took place prior to the Feb. 1 meeting.
Andersen, Garry and colleagues submitted an application to establish the West African Research Network for Infectious Diseases, a coalition of scientists in Africa and the U.S. who are researching infectious agents and creating new testing technology to “mitigate the effects of future pandemic threats.” The deadline for submitting the application was June 28, 2019.
To decide whether to fund grants, the NIAID recruits panels of scientists to review their peers’ applications and give them scores, which are translated into an overall impact score between 10 and 90, with 10 being the best. The meeting to review applications for the grant took place in November 2019.
Garry told us that the grant application received an impact score of 27 — meaning the reviewers considered the project to be of “high” impact, according to NIAID scoring criteria. “Your overall impact score is the key review outcome, the main basis for a funding decision by an NIH Institute,” the NIAID website reads.
The next step is review before an advisory council, a group of experts and lay members that “looks at applications with potential barriers to funding such as human subjects and animal concerns, or special circumstances such as foreign applications and renewal applications requesting more money than the limit,” according to the NIAID website. NIAID calls this second-level review a “small step” after the hurdle of initial peer review. The advisory council for the grant met in January 2020.
The advisory council made a funding recommendation for the grant prior to the Feb. 1 call, Garry told us, which was also confirmed by Fauci in his Fox News interview.
Once a grant has been recommended for funding, the NIAID website explains, NIAID “makes the final decision” on whether a grant will be awarded, with potential obstacles to funding including having a score below a certain level or not meeting administrative requirements. Administrative requirements can include things like providing additional information on budget, human subjects, and animal subjects, according to the website.
These administrative steps take time, Andersen and Garry explained, and this is why the award notice date for their grant is May 21, 2020.
Andersen pointed out in the March 11 podcast that the Feb. 1 call included scientists from around the world with diverse sources of funding. “The basic idea here of the cover-up just doesn’t make sense from that,” he said.
Holmes, a co-author on the Nature Medicine paper, said in the podcast: “What you saw was scientists scrambling to understand these data.” Fauci “didn’t tell us what to think. He didn’t tell us to write the paper. He didn’t write the paper. We did it. And we just wanted to understand the science. We thought it was important to get the message out there quickly and coherently.”
Holmes explained in a March 9 tweet that he applied for a CREID grant at the same time and did not receive funding. As we’ve said, Holmes was mentioned in Andersen’s Jan. 31 email as suspecting SARS-CoV-2 to be engineered and was invited to the Feb. 1 meeting, just like Andersen and Garry.
“Fundable scores will be fundable scores,” Holmes said on Twitter, referring to the fact that sufficiently good impact scores get funding.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s articles correcting health misinformation are made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.