Fauci aide triggers deeper concerns about hidden emails on COVID origins

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Testimony from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Senior Scientific Advisor David Morens — a longtime aide to former NIAID Director Anthony Fauci — only deepened congressional concerns about the possibility of concealed or destroyed emails concerning connections between the institute and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

A memo and over 150 emails released by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Wednesday show that Morens spent considerable time and energy avoiding the Freedom of Information Act — a law that requires federal agency records to be provided to the public on request with limited exceptions. 

Morens deleted sensitive emails, conducted official business on a private email account, and worked with an NIAID administrator in the Freedom of Information Office to strategically misspell keywords that the public might request to be searched, the committee alleges.

Morens sought to conceal emails in which he championed his close friend EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, a scientist who subcontracted NIAID funding to the lab in Wuhan for experiments that made coronaviruses more deadly. Morens said that he and Daszak met twenty years ago and were part of the same close knit “fraternity” among emerging infectious diseases experts. 

The subpoenaed emails make clear that Morens repeatedly advocated for EcoHealth and Daszak from within Fauci’s inner circle — serving as an intermediary between Daszak and Fauci — and often using his private Gmail account to shuttle messages.

One email released by the committee suggests that Fauci himself may have subverted public records requests through use of a personal email account, bypassing official channels. 

“I can either send stuff to Tony on his private email or hand it to him at work or at his house,” Morens emailed on April 21, 2021. “He is too smart to let colleagues send him stuff that could cause trouble.”

Other emails show Morens and Daszak strategizing about how to convey information to Fauci without leaving a paper trail.

Morens confirmed Wednesday that he discussed grants from NIAID to the Wuhan Institute of Virology with Fauci. 

“I certainly told him some things that he asked me to tell him about the situation with Peter [Daszak],” Morens said.

That statement contradicts a transcribed interview Morens gave the committee earlier this year in which he said he did not recall discussing EcoHealth or the Wuhan lab with Fauci.

“The evidence establishes that Dr. Morens likely provided false testimony to the Select Subcommittee,” the committee’s memo states. 

The committee may recommend that the Department of Justice investigate Morens for making false statements, a crime in violation of Title 18 Section 1001

The testimony follows revelations last week that Morens stated he would delete any “smoking guns” implicating a connection between Daszak’s organization and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Far from allaying concerns, Morens’ subpoenaed emails and testimony only raised more questions about the culture at the NIAID around transparency and public records requests. Indeed, the emails and testimony suggest NIAID may have systems in place to help employees evade FOIA requests. 

NIAID did not reply to a request for comment.

In addition, Morens wrote an email about the possibility of a “kickback” for helping to restore EcoHealth’s NIAID funding. He wrote profane emails that referred to binge drinking and sex, and made a remark about former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky wearing a skirt, raising concerns about his lack of professionalism and attitudes toward women.

“It is very disturbing to witness this type of behavior from Dr. Fauci’s senior advisor, but the evidence is clear and overwhelming. Dr. Fauci’s NIAID was unfortunately less pristine than so many, including the media, would’ve had us all believe,” said Chair Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio.

In one of the emails obtained by the committee, Morens acknowledges that the reputation of EcoHealth and Daszak affect the reputations of Fauci and former National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins.

“From Tony’s numerous recent comments to me, and from what Francis has been vocal about over the past 5 days, they are trying to protect you, which also protects their own reputations,” Morens wrote in October 2021. 

Morens’s attorneys turned over 30,000 emails to the committee responsive to a subpoena on April 30, just before Daszak testified to the committee on May 1.  It remains to be seen whether more emails come to light following the new revelations that Fauci apparently used a private Gmail account and that Morens used a Proton Mail account in addition to his Gmail account.

Morens said that the emails about a “back channel,” a “kickback,” and “smoking guns” simply reflected “black humor.” Morens also expressed regret for how his emails had undermined trust in NIAID.

“I’ve already apologized for making snarky and profane comments but I made them thinking that they were made on my private Gmail in a manner that was just between a small group of friends,” Morens said. “It’s embarrassing to me. I shouldn’t have done it. But I accept that I did it. I don’t know what to say other than I’m sorry.”

However Morens gave unclear testimony in response to the question of whether he improperly used his personal email to conduct official business.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., read out six separate emails in which Morens referred to avoiding FOIA. It took over three minutes to read every one. 

“This Gmail communication thing was set up purely to deal with personal things that were not government business,” Morens said.

“How can you say that when in all of these emails you said you were intentionally avoiding FOIA? You said it in your own words, sir,” Lesko said. 

Lesko countered that official emails had been forwarded to his private Gmail, that the emails on his Gmail had his official NIAID position in the email signature.

Morens blamed a technical issue.

“Sir, I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe you,” Lesko replied.

‘Do I get a kickback???’

When the novel coronavirus emerged from the same city in China with a high security lab specializing in coronaviruses, Daszak’s collaboration with the lab and with University of North Carolina gain-of-function coronavirologist Ralph Baric came under scrutiny — including from non-virologists like Wenstrup. 

Morens, Fauci and Daszak all went into action. 

Fauci met with virologists concerned about viral engineering, dispatched another aide to investigate any NIAID ties to the research and met with Baric to discuss these papers. Daszak organized a letter in a prestigious scientific journal dismissing lab origin concerns as conspiratorial.

For his part, Morens helped Daszak with non-public information when concerns about the Wuhan lab prompted NIH to suspend EcoHealth’s grant. Morens forwarded Daszak an email marked “for official use only” in April 2020. 

Morens appears to have helped Daszak navigate around NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer’s request for more information about the Wuhan lab in 2020 as a condition of the reinstatement of the grant, possibly hampering the U.S. government from accessing more information about the research underway there. Morens even personally edited EcoHealth’s response to Lauer, one email shows. That email too contradicts Morens’s transcribed interview earlier this year, perhaps exposing him to criminal penalties.

Daszak’s testimony earlier this month indicated that he never asked the Wuhan lab for genomic data beyond 2015 or so or for relevant lab notebooks — instead merely forwarding a request for information from NIH.

Morens also alerted Daszak to the forthcoming publication of documents released under FOIA in September 2021.

Morens invoked Fauci’s name in an email in which he appealed to an EcoHealth Alliance board member to continue to support the organization upon Daszak’s request.

After the grant was reinstated — despite Daszak’s failure to provide the data and information about the Wuhan lab that NIH requested — Morens sent an email referring to a “kickback.”

“Ahem…. Do I get a kickback??? Too much fooking money! DO you deserve it all? Let’s discuss….” he wrote.

“Of course there’s a kick-back,” Daszak replied.

Morens said the emails were in jest and denied receiving payment or any gifts from EcoHealth or Daszak. 

Members of the committee of both parties expressed concerns that Morens used official resources and the imprimatur of the NIAID to improperly assist the embattled EcoHealth, and how that could impact NIAID.

“I just hope you’re going to be very careful as you are telling us what the facts are because I’m very disturbed about other people who may be thrown under the bus in some of the wiley statements you made on your personal statements,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., an apparent reference to Fauci and Collins.

The Department of Health and Human Services has suspended federal funding both to EcoHealth and to Daszak personally pending an investigation into their handling of taxpayer funds. EcoHealth and Daszak could face debarment of any federal funds for several years.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who recently co-launched a bipartisan investigation into biosafety issues at the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, called upon the DOJ to investigate Morens Wednesday and alleged a criminal conspiracy to conceal records at NIAID. 

The emails also indicate that Morens played a central role at NIAID in early debates about gain-of-function experiments — specifically, controversial experiments on highly pathogenic avian flu in 2011 — and that he privately criticized scientists in favor of stronger biosafety regulations at Rutgers University, Harvard University and Stanford University.

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