Washington Wednesday: Origins of COVID-19 | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Washington Wednesday: Origins of COVID-19


WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: Origins of COVID-19

Anthony Fauci defends U.S. funding and maintains the work done in Wuhan, China, wasn’t gain of function research

Dr. Anthony Fauci testifying before the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus, Washington, D.C. on Monday Getty Imates/Photo by Allison Bailey/Middle East Images/Middle East Images via AFP

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 5th of June, 2024. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

First up: Washington Wednesday.

On Monday, members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability questioned Dr. Anthony Fauci. He’s the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Lawmakers asked him about restrictions introduced during the pandemic, such as social distancing. They asked about his communication with intelligence agencies and the role of the United States in funding research.

So did the U.S. fund research to create viruses not found in nature—and could the pandemic have been caused by a man-made lab leak?

WORLD’s Washington Bureau Reporter Leo Briceno has the story.

LEO BRICENO: On a cultural level, COVID-19’s origin has been a source of intrigue for several years. Here’s comedian Jon Stewart on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2021 discussing the possibility of a lab leak.

JON STEWART: There’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China. What do we do? Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab. The disease is the same name as the lab.

But while many skeptics look at that possibility as a conspiracy theory, Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers on Monday that he’s open to the idea that it could have come from a lab.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I feel, based on the data that I have seen, that the more likely explanation, not definitive, but the more likely explanation, is a natural spillover from an animal reservoir. But since there has not been definitive proof one way or the other, we have to keep an open mind that it could be either the concept of it is not a conspiracy theory.

Fauci has said similar things in the past. What’s really troubling Republicans, however, is the question: is it possible that American-funded experimentation with genetically-modified pathogens could be responsible? Fauci doesn’t think so.

FAUCI: You can’t get away from the fact that the viruses that were studied. That the NIH gave them a grant to study. Don’t pull back on the fact that no matter what you did with those viruses, they were phylogenetically so different they could not possibly be the precursor to SARS COV-2.

The questions of COVID-19’s origin overlap with Republican concern over funding the NIH awarded to Eco Health Global, a company working out of Wuhan’s virology labs. Arizona congresswoman Debbie Lesko.

DEBBIE LESKO: Did the National Institute of Health fund the potentially dangerous enhanced potential pandemic pathogens gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

FAUCI: I would not characterize it the way you did…

“Gain of function research,” is a nebulous term. In its most general form, it means any attempt to genetically modify a pathogen to enhance its properties in some way. On its face it sounds scary. But experts say experimentation like it keeps medicine one step ahead of newly emerging diseases.

Fauci’s arrival to the House on Monday isn’t the first time he’s testified before congress on the practice. Back in 2021, he was called before the Senate. Here’s Sen. Rand Paul confronting Fauci on his statements about research conducted in Wuhan.

RAND PAUL: Dr. Fauci, I don’t expect you today to admit that you approved of NIH funding for gain of function research in Wuhan, but your repeated denials have worn thin and a majority of Americans, frankly, don’t believe you. Even the NIH now admits that that eco-health alliance did perform experiments in Wuhan that created viruses not found in nature that actually did gain in lethality. You can deny it all you want, but even the Chinese authors of the paper, in their paper, admit that viruses not found in nature were created and, yes, they gained in infectivity.”

Fauci maintains that work done in Wuhan wasn’t gain of function research because it doesn’t live up to the definition laid out by the National Institutes of Health.

FAUCI: I go back to what I said. That the gain of function research by the operative and regulatory definition of P3CO does not include at all the viruses that were studied under…

By the P3CO standard, gain of function is experimentation with a highly transmissible pathogen that’s capable of uncontrollable spread in humans and likely to cause significant morbidity.

Fauci says that while EcoHealth was experimenting with the genetic enhancement of viruses, the research would have fallen below that P3CO standard.

FAUCI: The broad definition of gain of function in my mind is not applicable here and does nothing but confuse the situation. And that is the reason why after three years of deliberation by the bodies including the NSABB as well as the national academies, it was decided to make an operative and regulatory definition…The definition that I use is not my personal definition, it’s a codified, regulatory and operative definition made by a body that has nothing to do with me.

But he also can’t definitively say he knows everything that went on at that lab. Here’s Fauci sparring with congresswoman Lesko.

FAUCI: We know what viruses they were studying—

LESKO: How? How do you know? You never went there.

FAUCI: I’m telling you that the NIH funded research on these viruses if someone else somewhere in China was doing something else…

LESKO: That’s the problem. Because NIH didn’t go there, you didn’t get the reports that were needed, how in the world would you know? I’m going to go on with my next question.

FAUCI: Then you’re not hearing what I’m saying…

While controversial, gain of function itself isn’t illegal. In fact, it encompasses some of regularly accepted practices. Insulin, for instance, comes from E. Coli bacteria genetically manipulated to produce the diabetes drug.

Democrats like California representative Raul Ruiz came to Fauci’s defense on Monday. He stressed that definitions are important to understanding what really went on in Wuhan.

RUIZ: This has been a source of great conspiratorial accusations that are false regardless of the people making those accusation, knowing the true definition of gain of function. Now, under the 3PCO, it is not allowed to enhance the transmissibility or the pathogenicity of a potential pandemic pathogen. That’s already been settled. Dr. Fauci and NIAID did not fund P3CO-defined gain of function research.

Still, some lawmakers want stricter limits on the research. Here’s Congressman Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, the chairman of the select subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. Some of the background noise you’ll hear is Republicans coming out of their weekly conference in the Capitol basement.

BRAD WENSTRUP: So you’re just working with viruses that aren’t infectious to humans. But when you start taking parts from one virus, adding it to another and working different combinations. If you’re doing that, it doesn’t matter what you start with. It’s what you end up with.

In November, House Republicans tried to pass a bill that would have prevented government dollars from going to gain of function research, but the bill didn’t go anywhere in the Senate.

I asked Wenstrup if he thought Democrats would get behind a congressional plan to set limits on gain of function practices.

WENSTRUP: Probably not right now, as long as Dr. Fauci is in favor of it still. I don’t think that they will.

Fauci stepped down from leading the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 2022, but as Monday’s hearing illustrates, his influence on public health policy continues.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leo Briceno.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...