Another round of emails finds the National Institutes of Health once again hiding records that might explain whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan, China. In this case, the NIH redacted emails requested by investigative journalist Jimmy Tobias, who reports on federal environmental agencies and regularly litigates freedom of information requests. These blacked out documents add to a growing body of evidence that federal science agencies are hiding information about the pandemic’s origin, and further incriminates some science writers as government advocates.
“The agency’s behavior here indicates to me that it is trying hard to prevent these records from being made available for public scrutiny,” Tobias tells me.
A year back, Tobias requested that the NIH disclose all communications between the NIH’s Anthony Fauci and Kristian Andersen, an associate professor at Scripps Research. As reported by investigative journalist and media professor Alison Young in USA Today, shortly after the pandemic began in 2020, Fauci held a conference call with Andersen and other experts to discuss Andersen’s findings that the COVID-19 virus sequence looked like it might have been engineered in a lab. Three days after that call, Andersen’s position changed dramatically:
He had gone from having concerns about possible genetic engineering to telling another group of scientists “the data conclusively show” the virus wasn’t engineered, and calling suggestions of engineering “fringe” and “crackpot” theories.
Weeks after this pivot, Andersen published a highly influential March 2020 letter in Nature titled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” that helped shift public debate away from a possible lab accident in Wuhan, China. Then, in August 2020, Fauci’s NIH institute awarded Andersen a new $8.9 million grant to study emerging infectious diseases.
In his June 202 request, Tobias asked for all communications between Fauci and Andersen from January 2020 to June 2021. Citing Exemption 6 for privacy, the NIH responded with only 24 pages of emails, heavily redacting those they released. In one email to Fauci, Andersen attached a document labeled “Summary February 7” perhaps detailing an earlier discussion with Fauci. The NIH would not disclose this document, despite Tobias asking for all attachments in his request.
Among the heavily redacted 24 pages released by the NIH was an email from Jon Cohen, a writer for Science Magazine. Andersen forwarded Cohen’s email to Fauci and Jeremy Farrar, of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders for virologists, including Kristian Andersen’s colleagues.
After Tobias took the agency to court over the redactions, the NIH sent him a second production this April of the exact same 24 pages, with the exact same passages redacted. However this time, the NIH cited different legal claims for these same redactions—exemptions 4 and 5. In their letter to Tobias, the NIH explained:
Exemption 4 protects from disclosure trade secrets and commercial or financial information that is privileged and confidential. Exemption 5 permits the withholding of internal government records which are pre-decisional and contain staff advice, opinion, and recommendations.
Citing “trade secrets” and “staff advice,” the NIH also redacted an email sent by Science Magazine writer Jon Cohen to Kristian Andersen and a colleague alerting them to information a whistleblower had sent him. “Here’s what one person who claims to have inside knowledge is saying behind your backs,” Cohen wrote.
Jon Cohen’s Science Magazine email became public after Andersen forwarded it to Anthony Fauci at the NIH. Forwarding Cohen’s email, Andersen told Fauci and Farrar, “Again, sorry to take up your time—please let me know if you have any comments, questions, or concerns. We are planning to email Jon tomorrow afternoon.” [bold in original]
In their original disclosure, the NIH redacted emails from Science Magazine’s Jon Cohen by citing exemption 6 for privacy. Despite citing new exemptions—exemption 4 and exemption 5—to redact Cohen’s emails, the government has not explained how Cohen is part of the NIH’s deliberative process nor how his email from a whistleblower is a “trade secret.”
When asked about this on Twitter, Cohen seemed uninterested in explaining nor concerned that the government is hiding something.
Cohen even attempted to cite some novel legal reasoning, none of which made much sense.
Reporters such as Ian Birrell wonder about Cohen’s ethics.
Last week, I reported that the NIH filed a motion in a Virginia court to seal portions of documents that reference a Chinese researcher and an NIH official in a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Empower Oversight against the agency for covering up records that might explain how the pandemic began. The following day, Senator Rand Paul sent the NIH a letter, citing The DisInformation Chronicle.
“This suggests the NIH is censoring information it releases to the public about the origin of the pandemic,” the senator wrote to the NIH. Senator Paul also asked the agency to answer several questions about their freedom of information policies and what role the NIH Director plays in redacting information.
In in a March report, Empower Oversight discovered an email that showed the NIH was allowing senior NIH officials including then-Director Francis Collins to clear FOIA responses before documents were made public.
Dr. Collins stepped down as NIH Director last December and now serves as a science advisor to the Biden White House. Tobias tells me he is still in litigation with the NIH seeking to have the redactions removed from the emails—something that could possibly explain what the NIH remains determined to hide.