As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Anthony Fauci met with an American collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology about his gain-of-function research, emails obtained through freedom of information requests suggest.
On February 11, 2020, Fauci met with American virologist Ralph Baric, according to a copy of his schedule.
Baric, a professor in the departments of epidemiology and microbiology of the University of North Carolina, has come under scrutiny for sharing reverse genetics techniques, mice engineered to exhibit human airway cells and possibly a risky research proposal with Wuhan Institute of Virology Senior Scientist Zhengli Shi.
A newly unearthed email — a notification revealing the private Slack chat between two virologists close to Baric — provides a glimpse into what Fauci and Baric discussed.
“I talked to Ralph for a long time last night, [h]e sounds beat,” wrote Matt Frieman, a University of Maryland professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology on Feb. 18, 2020. “He said he sat in Fauci’s office talking about the outbreak and chimeras.”
A term adopted from ancient mythology, a “chimera” in virology is a hybrid virus generated by joining fragments from two or more viruses.
Baric responded seriously when Frieman mentioned the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to the Slack message.
“I joked about his link to WIV, he wasn’t very amused,” Frieman continued.
To be sure, Fauci may have sought Baric’s advice in those early days in part because of his preeminence in coronavirus research.
In virology circles, Baric was “the big cheese” in coronaviruses, Frieman said in a 2015 media article.
Fauci, who recently retired as the head of the National Institutes of Health’s infectious diseases division, was already meeting frequently with the White House as it formulated a response to the emerging outbreak.
However, other emails lay out the nature of Fauci’s most pressing interest in Baric’s work in the week prior to their meeting. Together the emails suggest Fauci has not disclosed the depth of his concerns about the Wuhan lab and its connection to the research enterprise he steered for decades.
Fauci was alerted in late January that the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, betrayed signs of engineering. A small group of virologists circulated a paper coauthored by Baric and Shi describing a SARSr-CoV experiment that employed engineering.
Fauci immediately dispatched an aide to interrogate whether his institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had any connection to the study. He attached the file under a shorthand name: “SARS Gain of function.”
NIAID had indeed supported Baric’s studies with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It had also funded similar work through EcoHealth Alliance, an American nonprofit.
Some of the experiments sponsored by EcoHealth Alliance, which does not have labs of its own, occurred at a BSL-3 or BSL-2 level at the Wuhan lab complex, which had a history of biosafety challenges.
Baric himself has called for an interrogation of a possible lab origin of COVID-19, alluding to the work conducted in BSL-2, according to a report by MIT Technology Review.
Other emails demonstrate that during a private teleconference that shaped the small group of virologists’ early efforts to grapple with the lab leak theory, and ultimately publicly reject it, Baric’s work was discussed in depth.
But Baric was excluded from the discussion because of his ties to the lab.
Ten days later, Fauci met directly with Baric.
Frieman, Baric and NIAID did not respond to requests for comment from U.S. Right to Know.
Zhengli Shi ‘may be arrested’
The Slack discussion also may offer insight into discussions between Baric and Shi in those critical early days.
“Zhi’s [sic] paper was not approved by the Chinese govt and that she may be arrested for it,” Frieman said in the Slack message, reporting back from his discussion with Baric. “Thats not a good look for anyone.”
The paper is not named.
Shi would email Baric a few weeks later, in April 2020, to complain about the scrutiny their gain-of-function collaboration had attracted, including in the U.S. press.
“I have been blamed by the peoples from the beginning of the outbreak because of this paper,” she said.
The emails in this story have been obtained from the Texas Public Information Act, North Carolina Public Records Law, and through the Freedom of Information Act. The requests were submitted by U.S. Right to Know, BuzzFeed, Judicial Watch, Open The Books and White Coat Waste Project. U.S. Department of Education documents reported on in this story, which USRTK obtained via FOIA litigation, can be found here. University of North Carolina documents reported on in this story that USRTK obtained via FOI litigation can be found here. The full documents obtained via all agencies and institutions can be found here.