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

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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.

Top Findings of the U.S. Right To Know Investigations

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U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative group, has obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of documents revealing – for the first time – how food and pesticide corporations are working behind the scenes to undermine our nation’s scientific, academic, political and regulatory institutions. Many of these documents are now posted in the free, searchable industry document archives hosted by the University of California, San Francisco. See the USRTK Agrichemical Industry Collection and Food Industry Collection.

U.S. Right to Know provides documents free of charge to journalists, researchers, policymakers and the public around the world. Our work has contributed to two front-page New York Times investigations; six articles in the BMJ, one of the world’s leading medical journals, and many stories in other top news outlets and journals. Our own reporting has been published in the Guardian and Time magazine, among other outlets. See highlights below. For a fuller list of our investigative work and reporting about it, see our investigations page.

New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, by Eric Lipton

New York Times: New C.D.C. Chief Saw Coca-Cola as Ally in Obesity Fight, by Sheila Kaplan

New York Times: A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World, by Andrew Jacobs

New York Times: Scientists, Give Up Your Emails, by Paul Thacker

New York Times: Traces of Controversial Herbicide Are Found in Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, by Stephanie Strom

Washington Post: Coca-Cola emails reveal how soda industry tries to influence health officials, by Paige Winfield Cunningham

BMJ: Coca-Cola and obesity: study shows efforts to influence US Centers for Disease Control, by Gareth Iocabucci

BMJ: International Life Sciences Institute is Advocate for Food and Drink Industry, Say Researchers

BMJ: Coca-Cola Contracts Could Allow it to “Quash” Unfavourable Research, by Elisabeth Mahase

BMJ: Coca-Cola’s Influence on Medical and Science Journalists, by Paul Thacker

BMJ: Conflicts of interest compromise US public health agency’s mission, say scientists, by Jeanne Lenzer

BMJ: US public health agency sued over failure to release emails from Coca-Cola, by Martha Rosenberg

TIME: FDA to Start Testing for Chemicals in Food, by Carey Gillam

TIME: I Won a Historic Lawsuit, But May Not Live to See the Money, by Carey Gillam

Island Press: Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, by Carey Gillam

Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs, by Laura Krantz

The Guardian: Revealed: how Monsanto’s ‘intelligence center’ targeted journalists and activists

The Guardian: Science Institute That Advised EU and UN ‘Actually Industry Lobby Group’, by Arthur Neslen

The Guardian: How Monsanto Manipulates Journalists and Academics, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: The EPA Is Meant to Protect Us.  The Monsanto Trials Suggest It Isn’t Doing That, by Nathan Donley and Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Who Is Paying for Monsanto’s Crimes?  We Are.  By Carey Gillam.

The Guardian: Weedkiller ‘Raises Risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma by 41%’, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: ‘The World Is Against Them’: New Era of Cancer Lawsuits Threaten Monsanto, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: One Man’s Suffering Exposed Monsanto’s Secrets to the World, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Landmark Lawsuit Claims Monsanto Hid Cancer Danger of Weedkiller for Decades, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Weedkiller Products More Toxic Than Their Active Ingredients, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Weedkiller Found in Granola and Crackers, Internal FDA Emails Show, by Carey Gillam

The Guardian: Monsanto says its pesticides are safe. Now, a court wants to see the proof, by Carey Gillam

The GuardianUN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk, by Arthur Neslen

The Guardian: Before you read another health study, check who’s funding the research, by Alison Moodie

Associated Press: Reports: Limit food industry sway on public health matters, by Candice Choi

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: Science organisations and Coca-Cola’s ‘war’ with the public health community: insights from an internal industry document, by Pepita Barlow, Paulo Serôdio, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Milbank Quarterly: Public Meets Private: Conversations Between Coca-Cola and the CDC.  By Nason Maani Hessari, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Journal of Public Health Policy: “Always read the small print”: a case study of commercial research funding, disclosure and agreements with Coca-Cola, by Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Journal of Public Health Policy: Roundup litigation discovery documents: implications for public health and journal ethics, by Sheldon Krimsky and Carey Gillam

Journal of Public Health Policy: Case-study of emails exchanged between Coca-Cola and the principal investigators of the ISCOLE, by David Stuckler, Gary Ruskin and Martin McKee

Globalization and Health: Are Industry-Funded Charities Promoting “Advocacy-Led Studies” or “Evidence-Based Science”? A Case Study of the International Life Sciences Institute.  By Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Lejla Sarjevic, Martin McKee and David Stuckler

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency, by Stacy Malkan

The Intercept: Trump’s New CDC Chief Championed Partnership with Coca-Cola to Solve Childhood Obesity, by Lee Fang

Los Angeles Times: In Science, Follow the Money If You Can, by Paul Thacker and Curt Furberg

San Francisco Chronicle: Major Brands Reverse Course on Genetically Modified Food Labels, by Tara Duggan

Undark: Corporate-Spun Science Should Not Be Guiding Policy, by Carey Gillam

WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding?, by Monica Eng

Democracy Now: Documents Reveal Monsanto Surveilled Journalists, Activists & Even Musician Neil Young

San Diego Union TribuneUCSD hires Coke-funded health researcher, by Morgan Cook

Bloomberg: Emails Show How Food Industry Uses ‘Science’ to Push Soda, by Deena Shanker

Bloomberg: How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs, by Jack Kaskey

CBC: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties, by Jason Warick

CBC: U of S Defends Prof’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree, by Jason Warick

ABC Australia: Leaked Email Exchange Reveals Food Industry Tactics, byLexi Metherell

ABC Australia: The Monsanto Papers broadcast

Le Monde: Comment Coca-Cola a bafoué ses promesses de transparence dans les contrats de recherche, by Stéphane Horel

Le Monde: Monsanto Papers series, by Stéphane Foucart and Stéphane Horel

The Nation: Did Monsanto Ignore Evidence Linking its Weed Killer to Cancer? by Rene Ebersole

Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War, by Tom Philpott

Politico: Coca-Cola gained control over health research in return for funding, health journal says, by Jesse Chase-Lubitz

The Progressive: Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media — and Discourages Criticism, by Paul Thacker

Freedom of the Press Foundation: How corporations suppress disclosure of public records about themselves, by Camille Fassett

Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby, by Allison Vuchnich

Forbes: The Coca-Cola Network: Soda Giant Mines Connections with Officials and Scientists to Wield Influence, by Rob Waters

STAT: Study pulls back curtain on contracts between Coca-Cola and the researchers it funds, by Andrew Joseph

STAT: Disney, Fearing a Scandal, Tries to Press Journal to Withdraw Research Paper, by Sheila Kaplan

Environmental Health News: Coca cola war with public health science over obesity, by Gary Ruskin

Environmental Health News: Essay: Monsanto’s ghostwriting and strong-arming threaten sound science — and society, by Sheldon Krimsky

Salon: Two Congresswomen Want an Investigation into CDC’s Relationship with Coca-Cola, by Nicole Karlis

Critical Public Health: How food companies influence evidence and opinion – straight from the horse’s mouth, by Gary Sacks, Boyd Swinburn, Adrian Cameron and Gary Ruskin

TruthOut: Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists

Huffington Post: articles by Carey Gillam

Huffington Post: articles by Stacy Malkan

Philadelphia Inquirer: Coca-Cola’s research contracts allowed for quashing negative health findings, study finds, by Mari A. Shaefer

Common Ground magazine: Are you ready for the new wave of genetically engineered foods?, by Stacy Malkan

EcoWatch: articles by U.S. Right to Know

Ralph Nader: Monsanto and its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information

Gizmodo: Coca-Cola Can Terminate Health Research It Funds, Investigation Finds, by Ed Cara

Inverse: University Records Reveal Coca-Cola’s Immense Power Over Health Research, by Peter Hess

USRTK: Tracking the agrichemical industry propaganda network

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