Fauci aide allegedly boasted about ability to ‘make emails disappear’ including ‘smoking guns’

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A longtime aide to former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci allegedly boasted in emails about his ability to evade public records requests and his intention to delete any potential “smoking guns,” a congressional hearing revealed Thursday.

Former National Institutes of Health Acting Director Lawrence Tabak testified before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which has been investigating an American research organization at the center of suspicions that the COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted from a lab accident in Wuhan.

The hearing follows an announcement Wednesday that this organization — EcoHealth Alliance, helmed by President Peter Daszak — has had its federal funding suspended and could be on track to be debarred from federal funding for years. The enforcement action stems from EcoHealth’s failure to adequately oversee the research it subcontracted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This research included experiments that made SARS-related coronaviruses more dangerous. Daszak testified before the committee earlier this month.

EcoHealth’s research was underwritten by NIAID — placing Fauci and his aides in the spotlight too. The scrutiny of EcoHealth and NIAID has revealed that Daszak had a close connection to Fauci’s inner circle in the senior advisor to the NIAID director, David Morens. 

Morens told the committee in a transcribed interview that Daszak is one of his oldest friends. 

Now evidence has surfaced suggesting that Morens evaded the Freedom of Information Act — which requires that records from federal agencies be made public with limited exceptions — and that an unidentified public records official with the NIH helped him to do so. 

NIH and NIAID did not immediately reply to request for comment.

Morens boasted about the ability to “make emails disappear” even after a FOIA request had been submitted, according to the committee.

The emails were revealed in questions by House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky.

“Dr. David Morens, a senior advisor to Fauci for decades, wrote in an email to Dr. Daszak, ‘I learned from our FOIA lady here how to make emails disappear after I am FOIA’d but before the search starts. So I think we are all safe. Plus I deleted most of those earlier emails after sending them to Gmail,’” Comer said Thursday. “Is that consistent with NIH document retention policies?” 

“It is not,” Tabak answered.

Asked if the NIH FOIA office instructs employees on how to evade FOIA, Tabak answered, “I certainly hope not.”

U.S. Right to Know is among the organizations that have submitted FOIAs to the NIH for emails from Morens about information with potential relevance to the origins of COVID-19 and is litigating against the NIH over its failure to comply with a January 2022 FOIA request for Morens’s records. 

In a separate email, Morens said that he intended to delete any records or emails that might constitute a “smoking gun.”

“He also later wrote Dr. Daszak, ‘We are all smart enough to know to never have smoking guns. And if we did we wouldn’t put them in emails. And if we found them we would delete them,’” Comer said. “Is that consistent with NIH document retention policies?”

“It is not,” Tabak again replied.

According to Comer, Daszak and Morens also collaborated in crafting public messages in  response to emails set to be released by NIH under FOIA.

The emails described by Comer undermine Tabak’s prepared testimony at the hearing in which he claimed the NIH is committed to transparency and following the science on the question of the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tabak’s testimony sets the stage for Morens to testify next week. Morens supplied the committee with 30,000 emails the day before Daszak testified before the committee on May 1. 

Morens wrote in an email to Daszak in 2021 that he communicates on Gmail “because my NIH email is FOIA’d constantly,” The Intercept previously reported.

“Just send to any of my addresses and I will delete anything I don’t want to see in the New York Times,” Morens wrote.

Looped into this email chain were several virologists who have cast the lab origin hypothesis as a conspiracy theory in the press. These virologists included University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes, Scripps Institute virologist Kristian Andersen, and Tulane University virologist Robert Garry, who have also been investigated by the committee for their role in an influential paper that dismissed the idea SARS-CoV-2 could have been engineered without disclosing the involvement of Fauci and former NIH Director Francis Collins.

The committee released emails earlier this month showing that Daszak informed Morens of his intention to voluntarily release only enough records to stave off a subpoena for more. The committee is now demanding more documents from Daszak, according to Subcommittee Chair Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio.

The committee’s investigation is building up to the testimony of Fauci on June 3. 

Tabak confirmed Thursday that the NIAID did indeed fund gain-of-function research on coronaviruses in Wuhan through EcoHealth Alliance according to the colloquial understanding.

According to the policy in place from 2014 to 2018  — the “U.S. Government Gain-of-Function Deliberative Process and Research Funding Pause on Selected Gain-of-Function Research Involving Influenza, MERS, and SARS viruses” — the definition of gain-of-function research at the time of the experiments involving the Wuhan Institute of Virology included “research that improves the ability of a pathogen to cause disease.”

Grant reports demonstrate that “chimeric” or combined coronaviruses studied by EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology caused more severe disease in mice engineered to express human receptors than the backbone virus. 

However, Tabak downplayed the risk posed by these chimeric viruses because they were bat coronaviruses, though the public literature described one of these viruses as “poised for human emergence.”

Fauci repeatedly denied that NIAID funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan in high-profile exchanges with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in 2021.

“Sen. Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially,” Fauci said in a July 2021 hearing. 

Tabak confirmed in the hearing Wednesday that in October 2021 the NIH communications office changed the definition of “gain-of-function research” on the NIH website. 

Asked to identify which scientist at NIH made or vetted the decision, Tabak could not identify any particular official.

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