Amid growing evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic came from a lab leak in China, Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul engaged in a tense exchange Tuesday with Dr. Anthony Fauci, pressing the White House coronavirus adviser on U.S. funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
At a Senate hearing on the COVID-19 response, Paul noted that American virologist Dr. Ralph Baric has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology Institute on "gain-of-function" research on bat viruses, contending it had been funded by the National Institutes of Health. Paul explained the risky gain of function research is an effort to get ahead of a potential outbreak by "juicing up naturally occuring viruses to infect humans."
"Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH lab in Wuhan?" the Kentucky senator asked.
"Sen. Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely, entirely and completely incorrect," Fauci said. "The NIH has not ever, and does not now, fund 'gain-of-function research' in the Wuhan Institute."
Paul asked if NIH funded "Dr. Baric's gain-of-function research."
"Dr. Baric is not doing gain-of-function research, and if it is, it is according to the guidelines and is being conducted in North Carolina," Fauci replied.
The Republican senator continued.
"You don't think that inserting a bat-virus spike protein that he got from the Wuhan Institute into the SARS virus is gain-of-function?" he asked.
"That is not ... " Fauci began.
"You would be in the minority, because at least 200 scientists have signed a statement from the Cambridge Working Group saying that it is gain-of-function," Paul said.
"Well, it is not," said Fauci. "If you look at the grant and if you look at the progress reports, it is not gain-of-function, despite the fact that people tweet that, write about it."
But Paul pointed out the NIH gave a grant to a group called EcoHealth Alliance, which hired the Wuhan lab to research how bat coronaviruses spread to humans. The grant was terminated last year under the Trump administration.
"Let me explain to you why that was done; the SARS COV-1 originated in bats in China," Fauci said. "It would have been irresponsible of us if we did not investigate the bat viruses and the serology to see who might have been infected."
Interrupting Fauci, Paul said, "Government scientists like yourself who favor gain-of-function ... "
Fauci interjected: "I don’t favor gain-of-function research in China, and you are saying things that are not correct."
Fauci was the co-author with NIH Director Francis Collins of a Washington Post op-ed in 2011 aruging that gain-of-function research is a "risk worth taking."
Paul asked Fauci: "Will you categorically say that the COVID-19 could not have occurred through serial passage in a laboratory?"
"I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I'm fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China," he replied."However, I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain of function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute."
In March, former CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, declaring he is now free to express his opinion, said he believes the novel coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
Asked to respond, Fauci, emphasizing that Redfield mentioned he was expressing his personal opinion, said "most public health officials" think the novel coronavirus didn't come from a lab.
Paul has clashed repeatedly with Fauci in Senate hearings over issues such as mask-wearing and reopening schools.
See the exchange Tuesday:
N.Y. Times science writer: Evidence points to lab leak
WND reported this week a prominent science journalist who worked for the journal Nature and the New York Times, Nicholas Wade, has published an in-depth report concluding the evidence points to a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Wade, in his analysis, addressed the NIH funding of gain-of-function research. He noted the NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance was specifically for research constructing novel coronaviruses and assessing their ability to infect human cells.
EcoHealth's founder and director, Dr. Peter Daszak, boasted in an interview in December 2019 -- before the outbreak became generally known -- that researchers at the Wuhan lab were reprogramming the spike protein and generating chimeric coronaviruses capable of infecting humanized mice.
Under the Trump administration in mid-January, the State Department issued a fact sheet contending Wuhan lab researchers conducted experiments involving the bat coronavirus identified by the lab in January 2020 "as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2," the virus that causes COVID-19.
Last week, congressional Republicans launched investigations into the origins of the pandemic, including the possibility of leak from a Wuhan lab. They are requesting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken release "unclassified documents and declassify other documents for public release, as appropriate, related to the assertion in the Department’s January 15, 2021 Fact Sheet that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in Wuhan, China, collaborated with the Chinese military in conducting classified research, including laboratory animal experiments."
The Australian reported Friday documents obtained by the U.S. State Department in May 2020 reveal Chinese military scientists discussed weaponizing SARS coronaviruses five years before the COVID-19 pandemic.
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