Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci emailed about whether NIH funded Wuhan lab before secret call

Print Email Share Tweet

Leaders in infectious diseases research funding may have unduly shaped the public’s understanding of where COVID-19 began, emails suggest. (Photo credit: NIH images)

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins emailed about coronaviruses under study at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and about whether they had steered money to the lab, an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know shows.

Collins, then leader of the National Institutes of Health, and Fauci, leader of its infectious diseases institute, exchanged emails on February 1, 2020, about a preprint authored by Zhengli Shi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. The preprint described bat coronaviruses under study at the lab, including a coronavirus 96 percent genetically similar to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

The emails show that Collins and Fauci were concerned about links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and NIH.

“In case you haven’t seen this preprint from one week ago,” Collins said in a February 1, 2020, email to Fauci. “No evidence this work was supported by NIH.” 

“I did see it, but did not check the similarities. Obviously we need more details,” Fauci replied, a little before noon.

Some details of the short exchange are redacted. 

The email shows that these concerns were top of mind at a critical time. 

About two hours after the email exchange, Collins and Fauci would join a secret teleconference with a group of virologists who were closely examining the novel coronavirus. The teleconference touched off a high profile push to discredit the lab leak hypothesis. 

The revelation that Collins and Fauci were discussing whether NIH had funded work on coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 at the Wuhan lab in the hours before suggests that politics may have been at play.

Those virologists’ claims that the virus could not have been engineered may have been influenced by Collins and Fauci. The NIH leaders may have sought to obscure links between federal funding and coronavirus research at the advancing pandemic’s epicenter. The emails raise questions about these virologists’ assurances that their deliberations were apolitical.

An analysis that framed the teleconference was called “Coronavirus sequence comparison[1].pdf.” This document has apparently not been released to the public, so it’s not clear which coronavirus they were comparing to COVID-19. 

But it’s clear from notes exchanged after the call that an analysis comparing the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2 and RaTG13, the Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus with a 96 percent identical genome, had been performed. 

The February 1 teleconference kicked off the drafting of an influential correspondence arguing against the idea that SARS-CoV-2 had been engineered. 

“The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” in Nature Medicine claimed “strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.” 

It has been cited in 752 media outlets.

Collins and Fauci were repeatedly updated on its drafting and provided “advice and leadership.” 

While not disclosed, the participation of NIH’s leaders in drafting the correspondence presented a conflict of interest.

Because while Collins had concluded that NIH did not support that particular study, the agency had indeed funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology for coronavirus work, including the engineering of chimeric viruses that combine components of multiple viruses to make them more infectious to human cells.

Fauci had been alerted days before that his institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, supported a “virus hunting” nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance with a grant called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was a collaborator, according to an email shared with U.S. Right to Know by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. 

Their concerns might have been aggravated further when lead authors of “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” shared concerns that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 appeared “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

The virologists’ concerns about features of the virus that appeared engineered were shared with Collins and Fauci on January 31, 2020, and again on February 2

RaTG13

The preprint authored by Shi about viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 – including RaTG13 – would eventually be published in Nature and continued to trouble the NIH leaders.

An addendum was added months later clarifying that miners had become sick and died after visiting a cave in Yunnan Province in 2012 where RaTG13 was found after independent researchers uncovered this information, despite RaTG13 being named something else in the earlier literature, stoking suspicions of obfuscation

In August 2020, Collins emailed his predecessor Harold Varmus, former director of the NIH, about an article describing NIH’s pressure on EcoHealth Alliance to provide records about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and another link to an article calling attention to the fact that RaTG13 was identical to the coronavirus that had sickened the miners and postulating a lab origin of SARS-CoV-2.

“Tony and I would like the chance to speak to you about this,” he wrote.

Collins announced his retirement in October 2021 after 12 years as director of NIH. Fauci announced his retirement in August 2022 after 38 years as the director of NIAID.

Collins currently serves as science advisor to President Joe Biden, while Fauci serves as his chief medical advisor. 

Despite stepping back from their roles at NIH, both Collins and Fauci could be called to testify about the origins of COVID-19 if Republicans win a majority in either chamber of Congress this fall, according Republicans poised to wield the gavel in key committees. 

The new emails in this report were obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Institutes of Health. 

Correction 9/7 4:25 p.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect the relationship between RaTG13 and the sickness experienced by the miners is uncertain.

FOIA reveals another secret call on COVID’s origin. The details are redacted.

Print Email Share Tweet

Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, pictured here in 2019, hosted a series of teleconferences with top virologists discussing whether the pandemic was the result of a lab accident in early 2020. Notes from a Feb. 7 meeting were obtained by USRTK, but are fully redacted. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Top virologists may have continued privately discussing “all theories” of the pandemic’s origin in the days after they began outlining an influential article that dismissed the lab leak theory in February 2020, an email obtained by U.S. Right to Know suggests.

The group — led by Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar and University of Sydney virologist Edward Holmes — apparently continued dissecting the data on Feb. 7, three days after the article was first drafted.  

“Eddie Holmes and a small group have been looking extensively at the origins and evolution of n-CoV including all theories,” Farrar wrote in an email on the morning of Feb. 8, 2020, to National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzau, referring to an early abbreviation for the new novel coronavirus.

“This is the latest summary, written as part of a series of [teleconference] discussions we set up and included [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci] and [National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins] as well as a small group from USA, UK, Europe and Australia,” Farrar wrote. 

It’s not clear whether the group had concluded the virus arose naturally by that date, or whether the lab origin hypothesis was still in play. 

Six pages of notes from the Feb. 7 discussion are fully redacted.

Dzau forwarded Farrar’s message to National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and President Trump’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier. 

McNutt later forwarded the email with an attachment called “Summary.Feb7.pdf.” 

The redacted documents surface as questions swirl about whether virologists consulting with NIH leadership may have prepared a public relations blitz to marginalize the “lab leak theory” at the same time they privately wrestled with it. 

Three days earlier, on Feb. 4, Farrar had shared with Fauci a first draft of a correspondence co-authored by Holmes titled “​​The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” that ultimately dismissed the possibility of a lab accident, according to emails transcribed by congressional staff. 

Farrar held a series of teleconferences with about 11 scientists around the world in early February. Fauci attended at least two of these teleconferences, according to a separate email released under FOIA by BuzzFeed News

While a Feb. 1 meeting of the Farrar group had been disclosed through that earlier FOIA request and a subsequent congressional investigation, the Feb. 7 meeting has not been previously reported. 

In a tweet after this story’s publication, Scripps Research virologist Kristian Andersen, a coauthor of the “proximal origin” article, said that the emails reported by U.S. Right to Know do not refer to one of these teleconferences, but did not provide further detail.

“There was no ‘teleconference’ on Feb 7,” he wrote. “Time for a new conspiracy theory.”

Andersen did not directly reply to a request for comment.

These teleconferences have come under scrutiny in recent months, as journalists and congressional committees have uncovered that three of the five authors of the “proximal origin” article had concluded on Jan. 31 that the genome of SARS-CoV-2 was “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.”

On Feb. 4, Farrar emailed Fauci and Collins that he was split “50-50” between a lab origin and natural origin and that Holmes was split “60-40,” leaning toward a lab origin. 

The participation of Fauci and Collins on the calls and their possible involvement in the shaping of the “proximal origin” article have raised concerns about a conflict of interest. NIH funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a connection Fauci may have been aware of by Feb. 1.

The scientists, including Fauci, have countered that the about-face —  from believing a lab origin was probable on Feb. 1 to a consensus that it was improbable in the article first circulated on Feb. 4 — simply reflected the scientific method at work

Notes from the Feb. 7 meeting may help clarify whether this shift indeed reflected rigorous scientific inquiry or amounted to a coverup. 

Requests to Farrar, Dzau, McNutt, each of the five “proximal origin” authors, and NIH to see notes from the Feb. 7 meeting were not returned. 

While Farrar’s memoir Spike describes his sleepless nights following these teleconferences on the pandemic’s source, it does not mention the Feb. 7 meeting. Farrar’s book describes the Feb. 1 meeting, then jumps to the March 17 publication of the “proximal origin” paper. 

Farrar directed questions to a media officer for the Wellcome Trust, who cited a January statement about COVID’s origins.  

“The scientific evidence continues to point to SARS-CoV-2 crossing from animals to humans as the most likely scenario,” the statement reads. “However, as the efforts to gather evidence continue, it is important to stay open-minded and work together internationally to understand the emergence of Covid and variant strains.”

Holmes did not respond to a request for comment. 

The National Academies 

Farrar’s email to the leader of the National Academy of Medicine coincided with a call by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the prestigious professional society to investigate the pandemic’s origin. 

“I sent a memo from OSTP to [the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] about data needs … and a meeting was held that same day, though I didn’t attend (one of my staff did),” Droegemeier told U.S. Right to Know in an email. “NASEM responded in writing on February 6 saying that additional genomic sequence data were needed to determine the origin of the virus.”

The NASEM held a call with experts on Feb. 3, including two U.S.-based collaborators of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Andersen was also on the call. 

Andersen described the possibility that the virus was manipulated as “crackpot” in an email to the other NASEM participants. He urged the Academies to push back on it more forcefully in its public response to OSTP. 

Just four days after voicing concerns that the viral genome appeared “inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory,” he recommended the Academies use the language “consistent with [natural evolution]” in its reply.

Droegemeier said he did not recall the email from Farrar and does not have access to emails since he left public service. 

U.S. Right to Know obtained the email through a Freedom of Information Act request to OSTP as part of an investigation into risky virology research funded with taxpayer dollars. 

Updated June 3, 1:13 p.m. to reflect public comments by Kristian Andersen