'Just writing a paper': Fauci-tied COVID origin author passes buck for shutting down lab-leak debate

Democrats leave Tulane's Robert Garry to fend for himself. Imagine getting infected with virus NIAID studies, near its labs, and being told the virus emerged naturally from the Everglades, scientist tells Senate committee.

Published: June 18, 2024 11:00pm

Congressional Democrats have tried to play down the relevance of COVID-19's origin since the FBI and Department of Energy concluded SARS-CoV-2 most likely leaked from a Chinese lab and their favorite witnesses, including one on the talk-show circuit with a new book, conceded that lab-leak is not a "conspiracy theory" after frequently portraying it as such.

But their disinterest in the subject was visibly demonstrated Tuesday at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing with lopsided attendance by their party, leaving an author of the "Proximal Origin" paper in Nature Medicine, which purported to discredit "any type of lab-based scenario," mostly defenseless against Republican attacks.

Tulane University microbiologist Robert Garry appeared to chuckle his way through the grilling, especially when Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said Garry was "right at the center" of "propaganda" that Dr. Anthony Fauci, then-director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, used to "mobilize our own government to censor people who ask questions."

Exposed communications show the paper's authors largely switched their view of origin after talking to Fauci, filled him in on their progress and thanked Fauci and then-National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins for their "advice and leadership" during its drafting.

"I was simply just writing a paper about our scientific opinions," and it has "held up well" under immense scrutiny, Garry told Hawley, explaining that "new data" convinced him COVID emerged naturally. "It's just the scientific method." 

Garry said he still believes SARS-CoV-2 is "definitely" not a "laboratory construct" and claims the intelligence community agrees with him. "Four IC elements" – unspecified – "and the National Intelligence Council" lean toward "natural exposure," an unclassified summary says.

"That is a lie," Hawley shot back. "I have read" the classified assessments made available to select members of Congress while "you and your people were propagandizing" the public, and "the intelligence community did not come to that conclusion."

The closest thing to Republican support Garry received was from Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, who asked why there was so much "energy" around the origin debate when Congress knows the problem is Chinese intransigence and gain-of-function research that increases viral virulence, transmissibility or both, which may have played a role in COVID's emergence.

Democrats haven't abandoned Garry as they recently did Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, which passed through NIAID funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a suspected source of SARS-CoV-2. The Department of Health and Human Services suspended and proposed debarment for both Daszak and EcoHealth for alleged violation of grant terms.

But only two members of the committee's Democrat majority – Chairman Gary Peters, of Michigan, and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire – spoke at the hearing, letting ranking member Sen. Rand Raul and several of the GOP's most vocal critics of the feds, and their witnesses, dominate the discussion. 

Peters implied the natural emergence of COVID was more likely through his use of the qualifiers "possibly" and "potential" to describe only lab origin but said they probably couldn't settle the dispute because the Chinese government "may never fully disclose" what it knows.

Asked by Peters how much of the evidence for either theory is "concrete documented information," Garry said early COVID samples "painted a bullseye" on the Huanan Seafood Market, in Wuhan, specifically the southwest corner "hotspot" for positivity where raccoon dogs and palm civets were sold. 

WIV couldn't create COVID from the bat coronaviruses it studied, in part because the latter are spread gastrointestinally, Garry said. He defended the necessity of gain-of-function research – as the feds now concede WIV was doing, just not under the more strict federal definition – to prevent future outbreaks. 

Until China releases the "raw data" from the market and other provinces and WIV shares its records, however, "we don't have the smoking gun evidence" for natural emergence, Garry said, conceding that "maybe somebody [infected] came and sneezed" at the southwest corner.

Gregory Koblentz, director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University, emphasized that no intelligence agency believes COVID was bioengineered as a weapon while warning that determining origin is "rarely definitive." 

It's like "putting together a puzzle where you don’t know what the final picture will look like, the pieces change shape and move around, and other pieces are added and moved as you're trying to solve the puzzle," not to mention "politically fraught," he said.

Paul laid out his opposing case from exposed communications: Fauci's "inner circle" of scientists who wrote Proximal Origin said lab escape was "so friggin' likely," based on a "nightmare of circumstantial evidence," with Garry himself struggling to "think of a plausible scenario" for natural emergence.

They admitted a natural virus would need "four amino acids [and] 12 nucleotides" to be added simultaneously to give SARS-CoV-2 its defining features and that WIV has a "very large collection of viruses," yet Fauci's scientific adviser David Morens told Daszak "I think we're safe now" after Morens deleted official emails that could be exposed by public records requests.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is stonewalling Congress on declassification, and HHS and NIH refuse to turn over details of gain-of-function research that might have played a role in COVID's emergence, Paul said. "They say it's not gain-of-function? Let's hear the debate" from federal scientists' internal communications.

Atossa Therapeutic CEO Steven Quay, former faculty at the Stanford School of Medicine, emphasized he doesn't receive NIH or NIAID funding, while those who do "may have pressure to publicly agree with orthodoxies" they privately discount, as when Garry internally conceded "the fish market probably did not start the outbreak."

He cited evidence the virus was spreading worldwide before it appeared at the fish market – including antibodies, hospital overload and positive wastewater from Brazil – that "dismisses out of hand" the market as the source, as well as the Chinese attempt at "closing the barn door after the horse has left."

All human infections came from "non-ancestral lineage B" while Huanan vendors and their animals from southern China, the source of bat coronaviruses, testified negative, Quay said. Only 1-in-14 raccoon-dog samples had SARS-CoV-2 "reeds," and the ratio in that sample was 1-in-210 million. 

It would be like getting infected with a virus NIAID was studying at its labs, in north Bethesda, Maryland, at a restaurant nearby, then being told the virus emerged naturally from Florida's Everglades, he said.

"Already in 2015" scientists were worried about WIV's high-risk research from the public domain, Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright testified. 

In its rejected grant proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2018, WIV proposed adding a furin cleavage site to a virus using only gloves and a lab coat in a BSL-2 facility, when lab escapes have been documented at the more-secure BSL-3 level, Ebright said. 

He claimed SARS-CoV-2 is the only known SARS-related coronavirus among more than 800 with this particular furin cleavage site, which "mathematically" puts the likelihood of natural emergency at less than 1-in-800. "Zero secure evidence points toward a natural origin."

There is no civilian use for gain-of-function research, Ebright said. The reason researchers do it is because it's "fast ... easy, it requires no specialized equipment or skills" and is prioritized for funding and publication by journals: "These are major incentives to researchers."

Unlock unlimited access

  • No Ads Within Stories
  • No Autoplay Videos
  • VIP access to exclusive Just the News newsmaker events hosted by John Solomon and his team.
  • Support the investigative reporting and honest news presentation you've come to enjoy from Just the News.
  • Just the News Spotlight

    Support Just the News