“At a Senate hearing in May, Dr. Fauci said, ‘The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.’ That was under oath, under testimony. On October 20th, the NIH principal deputy director in writing directly contradicted it.”

By Glenn Kessler

— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), remarks at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Oct. 27

“Last week his agency admitted they had in fact funded gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

— Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), at the same hearing, Oct. 27

In May, we examined a high-profile spat between Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. At issue was whether the National Institutes of Health had funded “gain-of-function” experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). At a Senate hearing, Paul said “super viruses” had been created, and Fauci shot back that the senator was “entirely and completely incorrect.”

We awarded Two Pinocchios to Paul, saying “there still are enough questions about the work at the Wuhan lab to warrant further scrutiny, even if the NIH connection to possible gain-of-function research appears so far to be elusive.”

Readers have been asking for an update ever since a top NIH official sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 20 saying that the nongovernmental organization EcoHealth Alliance — which received NIH funding to do the research on the potential for bat-specific pathogens in nature to jump to humans — did not report an experimental finding that indicated a spike in viral growth.

Both Cruz and Cotton have cited the NIH letter to assert that Fauci lied to Congress. Cruz even told Attorney General Merrick Garland that Fauci should be prosecuted. The issue is important because of speculation that the virus that caused the coronavirus pandemic might have been created in a lab. But the NIH letter does not say what they claim — and, in fact, the NIH letter appears to have inaccuracies.

The Facts

This is a complex story, on many levels. We are going to keep focused on what was disclosed in the NIH letter and in the release of grant updates by EcoHealth by the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Intercept.

Gain of function, in many ways, is basic biological research. It’s done all the time with flies, worms, mice and cells in petri dishes. Scientists create novel genotypes (such as arrangements of nucleic acids) and screen or select to find those with a given phenotype (such as trait or ability) to find new sequences with a particular function.

But it’s one thing to experiment with fruit flies and another thing when the research involves genotypes of potential pandemic pathogens and functions related to transmissibility or virulence in humans.

That’s when gain of function becomes controversial. The idea is to get ahead of future viruses that might emerge from nature, thereby allowing scientists to study how to combat them. But increasingly many scientists have decided the research was potentially dangerous — and, especially in China, not done with the proper safety precautions.

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