Did Fauci Fund ‘Gain of Function’ Research, Thereby Causing COVID-19 Pandemic?

Statements made by Fox News host Tucker Carlson furthered theories that a manipulated virus spilled over from a lab in Wuhan, China.

  • Published
  • Updated
Suit, Clothing, Overcoat
Image via Gage Skidmore

Claim

National Institutes of Health Director Anthony Fauci helped fund gain of function research at a facility in Wuhan, China, and that research ultimately led to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rating

Context

The claim that Fauci is "responsible" for the COVID-19 pandemic is based, in turn, on speculation that NIH-funded gain of function research resulted in a manipulated form of the coronavirus "spilling over" from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and infecting the human population. To date, none of these claims have been substantiated and Fauci has explicitly denied that NIH funded of gain of function research on the coronavirus.

Origin

As more than one year passes since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Snopes is still fighting an “infodemic” of rumors and misinformation, and you can help. Find out what we’ve learned and how to inoculate yourself against COVID-19 misinformation. Read the latest fact checks about the vaccines. Submit any questionable rumors and “advice” you encounter. Become a Founding Member to help us hire more fact-checkers. And, please, follow the CDC or WHO for guidance on protecting your community from the disease.

During a May 10, 2021, airing of his Fox News show, host Tucker Carlson claimed that National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Anthony Fauci helped provide funding for “gain of function” research at a facility in Wuhan, China, that (supposedly) led to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During that broadcast of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Carlson cited an opinion piece regarding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that was written by Nicolas Wade. In a nutshell, Wade argued without substantiated evidence that gain of function experiments (we’ll explain what those are later) that were prohibited in the U.S. continued at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which ultimately led to the creation of SARS-CoV-2. And because the Wuhan-based institute was not properly regulated, Wade argued, the novel coronavirus was likely to have infected a researcher who would ultimately become the source of the pandemic. 

The 13-minute segment began with Carlson criticizing Jeffrey Zeints, U.S. President Joe Biden’s appointed official to oversee the COVID-19 response efforts. Carlson then suggested that Fauci said Americans can expect to wear masks indefinitely. (We fact-checked that, too. Fauci did not say that.) 

“The question is why is he doing that? Maybe he likes it, that’s possible. But you gotta think at least part of Tony Fauci’s authoritarian germ hysteria is a cover for something else,” Carlson continued. “Could it be that Tony Fauci is trying to divert attention from himself and his own personal role in the COVID-19 pandemic? Now, what do we mean by that?”

That’s when Carlson pivoted to “The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” — Wade’s opinion piece — not a scientific study as was suggested — published by the nonprofit science organization Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a reputable group that publishes free-access scientific information “concerning science and global security issues.” Wade is a controversial science writer whose recent theories on race have been generally disputed by researchers around the world. Wade was a former staff writer for the Science Times section of The New York Times up until 2012 and he authored the controversial book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” He has been described by researchers at Georgetown University as a “sad saga” of a “former international reporter turned laughing stock.”

By and large, Carlson hyperbolized and generalized Wade’s main points in his piece, stretching the key takeaways to suggest that the article “explains where this virus almost certainly came from.” Carlson furthered that Wade “makes it clear that more than any other single American, Tony Fauci is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic” by laying out a nearly “insurmountably large amount of evidence” that the virus originated in the WIV. This evidence included conducting experiments — funded by “American tax dollars” — to make bat viruses infectious to humans “approved and directed by Tony Fauci,” argued Carlson.

We’ll take a closer look at what Wade actually wrote below.

As is usual with these sorts of allegations, there is a mixture of half-truths peppered in an alarmist claim meant to incite an emotional response. First, it is important to note that Wade wrote in his opinion piece that of the two theories he believed were plausible, so far neither has “direct evidence” proving its validity. 

“Each depends on a set of reasonable conjectures but so far lacks proof. So I have only clues, not conclusions, to offer. But those clues point in a specific direction. And having inferred that direction, I’m going to delineate some of the strands in this tangled skein of disaster,” he wrote. 

After the Carlson video aired, questions surrounding gain of function research were brought to a Senate health committee hearing on May 11 when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) clashed with Fauci over whether funding from the NIH was used at WIV, suggesting that this might have contributed to the “lab leak” hypothesis — a controversial theory that virus-related experiments accidentally spilled over into the public sphere. 

“We have not funded gain of function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No matter how many times you say it, it didn’t happen,” said Fauci. 

Wade — and later Carlson — also argued that gain of function research funded by the NIH was the likely source of a laboratory leak — a hypothesis that has been contested by the broader scientific community time and again. Since SARS-CoV-2 was first named in January 2020 and subsequently declared a pandemic, conspiracy theorists have peddled notions that the virus was made in a lab and intentionally released as a biological weapon despite rigorous scientific research proving otherwise. 

First and foremost, it is true that WIV was one of many research facilities around the world dedicated to the study of coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are one of the most common viruses and were at the center of the SARS 2001 and MERS 2012 epidemics, prompting efforts led by the NIH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and NIH to better understand their potential for a pandemic. 

Research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of virology was partially funded by NIH. Public Domain

One form of research conducted at these labs includes the gain of function research. These are experiments to increase the transmissibility or virulence of pathogens to make them more infectious to humans in order to help improve understanding of disease-causing agents and how they interact with humans, as well as their potential to cause a pandemic. In other words, scientists manipulate the genetic code of viruses to change certain elements, making them either more or less dangerous to better understand how they work. But in 2014, the Obama administration called for a “pause” on funding of such experiments, SARS and MERS viruses in particular, and launched a government-led investigation into the risks and benefits of such research.  

An ethical analysis white paper written by Professor Michael Selgelid and produced by the NIH Office of Science Policy and published in the journal, Science and Engineering Ethics in 2016 argued that gain of function research poses risks regarding biosecurity and biosafety. Using this guidance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services developed a framework for guiding funding decisions about the gain of function research, and under the recommendation of experts, the NIH lifted its pause. 

And it is true that WIV is located miles from where the first COVID-19 outbreak was detected and that the facility previously received funding from the NIH via the EcoHealth Alliance Inc., a research organization based in New York City, as was reported on the agency’s website. But such international cooperation is not unusual, and funding to the lab was also provided through European, Asian, and African organizations as well as the World Health Organization and the European Virus Archive goes global.  

To support its work, EcoHealth made subawards to the WIV and other institutions based in East Asia where coronaviruses tend to emerge and are prevalent. A subaward is made when the primary grant recipient (in this case, EcoHealth Alliance Inc.) seeks another organization to carry out part of the grantee’s research project. In this case, NIH said that it did not establish the terms of the award and that EcoHealth was “directly accountable for the performance of the project.”

And in an email to Snopes, EcoHealth Alliance communications manager Robert Kessler said that the organization has neither contributed to nor participated in gain-of-function research.

“The research proposed in the grant application sought to understand how bat coronaviruses evolve naturally in the environment to become transmissible to the human population,” Jennifer Routh, a spokesperson for the NIH, told Snopes.

“This included studying viral diversity in bat reservoirs, surveying people who work in live animal markets or other jobs with high exposure to wildlife for evidence of bat-coronavirus infection, and analyzing data to predict which newly discovered viruses pose the greatest threat to human health.”

The application did not propose research to enhance any coronavirus to be more transmissible or virulent, added Routh. The application was subjected to rigorous peer review and was judged to be a high priority, given how SARS-CoV had already emerged in this bat population. To support its work, EcoHealth made sub-awards to WIV and other institutions based in East Asia where coronaviruses tend to emerge and are prevalent. And according to NIH, funds that go to sub-awardees (EcoHealth Alliance) from the primary grantee (NIH) must support the research activities that were approved and funded in the grant, which did not include gain of function research.

On May 19, Dr. Francis Collins with the NIH issued the below statement, which the agency forwarded to Snopes:

Based on outbreaks of coronaviruses caused by animal to human transmissions such as in Asia in 2003 that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and in Saudi Arabia in 2012 that caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), NIH and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) have for many years supported grants to learn more about viruses lurking in bats and other mammals that have the potential to spill over to humans and cause widespread disease. However, neither NIH nor NIAID have ever approved any grant that would have supported “gain-of-function” research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans. NIH strongly supports the need for further investigation by the World Health Organization (WHO) into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

The 2014 funding pause pertained to a subset of gain-of-function research that could reasonably be anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route. Following the initiation of the pause, this grant was reviewed again and determined by experts to fall outside the scope of the funding pause.

Furthermore, a joint World Health Organization-China study on the origins of COVID-19 said that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely.” However, the NIH told Snopes that it “strongly supports the need for further investigation by the World Health Organization (WHO) into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

“Working with a cross-regional coalition of 13 countries, we urge the WHO to begin the second phase of their study without delay,” wrote Collins.

In short, gain of function research is permitted under certain conditions and there is evidence to suggest that such experimentation may have occurred in the past at WIV. However, there is no evidence to outright suggest that experiments to manipulate a coronavirus resulted from this research and ultimately spilled over into the surrounding area. Nor is it clear whether gain of function research was being conducted at the onset of the pandemic. Snopes’ questions to the NIH went unanswered but we will update the article if and when we hear back. 

Recent Updates
  1. Update [May 28, 2021]: This article was updated to include clarification on NIH grant-awarding processes.
  2. Update [May 25, 2021]: This article was updated to include additional comments from the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance.
  3. Update [May 20, 2021]: This article was updated to include statements from the NIH.
  • Published
  • Updated