Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. virus expert, acknowledged the risk of a pandemic from an accidental leak of a fortified virus but supported the research anyway, The Australian newspaper has reported.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wrote in an academic paper nine years ago that he supported “gain-of-function” research on viruses despite admitting a “remote” possibility that such “important work” could lead to a global pandemic if such a fortified virus escaped from a lab, The Australian newspaper reported on Friday.
In October 2012, Fauci wrote a paper for the American Society for Microbiology, in which he said:
“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.”
The newspaper’s revelation comes as President Joe Biden announced this week an investigation into whether the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)’s lab in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic first broke out.
Fauci, who had dismissed that possibility and insisted the virus had natural transmission from another species to humans, on May 11 reversed himself, saying at a conference that he was “not convinced” of the coronavirus’ natural origins and said authorities needed to learn “exactly what happened.”
Fauci has denied allegations that his NIH helped fund gain-of-function experiments at the Wuhan lab. He told a U.S. Senate hearing this month that the NIH “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the WIV.” But The Australian reported: “Papers published as late as last year in American peer-reviewed academic journals that include WIV researchers – including its prominent virologist Shi Zhengli – disclose that work on coronaviruses had been funded by at least three NIH grants.” The newspaper did not provide links to these papers.
On Tuesday, Fauci testified to Congress that the NIH indeed funded the WIV through the non-profit EcoHealth Alliance in the amount of $600,000 over a five-year period. He denied the funding was for gain-of-function research. Republicans later called on him to resign.
Lifted the Ban
Though he favored gain-of-function research despite the risks, Fauci in his October 2012 paper supported a then voluntary ban on the research. But The Australian reported that in December 2017 Fauci unilaterally reversed an Obama administration 2014 ban on such experiments precisely because of the danger that a leak could cause a pandemic. The Australian quoted former Trump administration officials as saying that no one at the Trump White House knew that Fauci had lifted Obama’s ban.
“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.” Fauci has not yet commented on the latest revelations.
Gain-of-function research by manipulating, splicing and recombining viruses increases its lethality and contagiousness in the apparent attempt to help combat future viruses.
The Australian reported that prominent scientists oppose the research, including 200 researchers at the Cambridge Working Group who issued this warning in 2014:
“Accident risks with newly created ‘potential pandemic pathogens’ raise grave new concerns. Laboratory creation of highly transmissible, novel strains of dangerous viruses, especially but not limited to influenza, poses substantially increased risks.
An accidental infection in such a setting could trigger outbreaks that would be difficult or impossible to control. Historically, new strains of influenza, once they establish transmission in the human population, have infected a quarter or more of the world’s population within two years.”
Steven Salzberg, at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, wrote in 2015 that gains from the research were “minimal at best” and could “far more safely be obtained through other avenues of research.”
“I am very concerned that the continuing gain-of-function research on influenza viruses, and more recently on other viruses, presents extremely serious risks to the public health,” he wrote.
Acknowledging the Risks
In his academic paper, Fauci detailed the risks involved with gain-of-function research, particularly in labs with substandard safety measures.
“Within the research community, many have expressed concern that important research progress could come to a halt just because of the fear that someone, somewhere, might attempt to replicate these experiments sloppily. This is a valid concern.
“Putting aside the specter of bioterrorism for the moment, consider this hypothetical scenario: an important gain-of-function experiment involving a virus with serious pandemic potential is performed in a well-regulated, world-class laboratory by experienced investigators, but the information from the experiment is then used by another scientist who does not have the same training and facilities and is not subject to the same regulations.”
Fauci said virologists needed to respect “that there are genuine and legitimate concerns about this type of research, both domestically and globally.” He added:
“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 dialogue 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.
Granted, the time it takes to engage in such a dialog could potentially delay or even immobilize the conduct of certain important experiments and the publication of valuable information that could move the field forward for the good of public health.
If we want to continue this important work, we collectively need to do a better job of articulating the scientific rationale for such experiments well before they are performed and provide discussion about the potential risk to public health, however remote.”
Among the evidence being looked at in the U.S. probe into a possible lab leak is a CIA finding, first reported in February from a State Dept. fact sheet by The Wall Street Journal, that three lab workers at the WIV became seriously ill with a flu-like disease and were hospitalized in November 2019.
Facebook Lifts Ban
As a consequence of the Biden administration probe into a possible lab leak, Facebook announced Friday that it would no longer censor comments saying that the coronavirus was man-made.
“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”
This appears to be one more example of a social media giant following whatever the latest Democratic Party policy happens to be.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @unjoe
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