Emails suggest Fauci aides miswrote names to evade FOIA, praised 'bitch-slapping' critics

Sen. Joni Ernst wants documentation from agencies beyond HHS that EcoHealth Alliance, which passed taxpayer money to Wuhan Institute of Virology, and its president have been fully cut off from federal funding.

Published: May 30, 2024 11:10pm

Dr. Anthony Fauci became a punchline for reportedly claiming to "not recall" more than 100 times in his transcribed interview with the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic how he ran the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases during COVID-19.

His former chief of staff, Greg Folkers, may have a tougher sell: convincing lawmakers he is just coincidentally bad at spelling proper nouns likely to be searched in Freedom of Information Act requests related to COVID origins and federal funding of a suspected outbreak source.

Days before Fauci's scheduled appearance at a subcommittee hearing, before which his full transcript will be released, Folkers may be the next domino to fall in the majority's quest to confirm "a conspiracy at the highest levels" of the National Institutes of Health and NIAID, as Chair Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, put it to NIH Director Monica Bertagnolli on Wednesday.

Former Fauci senior scientific adviser David Morens endured a bludgeoning at a hearing last week due to emails in which he repeatedly told outside scientists, including EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, that he intentionally evaded FOIAs by communicating via Gmail and deleting messages to his government account after forwarding them to Gmail.

GOP staff released a report that showed Morens – now on administrative leave – bragging to Daszak that "there is no worry about FOIAs" because Fauci is "too smart to let colleagues send him stuff that could cause trouble" and Morens can "send stuff to Tony on his private gmail, or hand it to him at work or at his house."

Emails released by the subcommittee this week show Folkers internally referred to EcoHealth, which passed through NIAID grants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as "Ec~Health," and virologist Kristian Andersen, who said Fauci "prompted" him and other scientists to write the narrative-setting "Proximal Origin" paper against the lab-leak theory, as "Anders$n."

Scripps Research Institute scientist Andersen told the subcommittee last year his email that describes "trying to disprove any type of lab theory," a week after a Feb. 1, 2020, conference call with Fauci and others about the "potentially" engineered SARS-CoV-2, referred to the scientific process of "falsification," not a predetermination against lab-leak.

The new emails suggest NIAID employees "strategically use language to avoid key word searches" by intentionally misspelling expected search terms, and that Folkers specifically did this "routinely," Wenstrup told Bertagnolli.

He requested a staff-level briefing by June 4 – the day after Fauci's scheduled testimony – about the agency's "document retention, transparency, FOIA, and personal email policies," and said the subcommittee may request transcribed interviews with NIH employees about the alleged evasion of FOIA and improper communications with outside scientists.

The misspelling "Anders$n" drew amusement from critics who accuse Fauci of suppressing the lab-leak theory, including Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebright, since Andersen – an initial skeptic of natural origin – started receiving large NIH grants soon after Proximal Origin's publishing. His nine projects have raked in more than $10 million in four years.

NIH could respond that its employees are simply bad at spelling. A social media user pointed Just the News to 11 grants worth tens of millions of dollars in NIH's funding database that identify the recipient as "Janessen," referring to vaccine maker Jannsen, responsible for the since-discontinued Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, joined the fray Wednesday in separate letters to NIH, Defense Department, National Science Foundation and U.S. Agency for International Development. (Ebright's Rutgers colleague Bryce Nickels, cofounder of Biosafety Now, posted them.)

Ernst demanded each "confirm you have suspended all funding" to EcoHealth, list all projects in which the nonprofit is "involved and receiving taxpayer dollars," and explain whether they have access to "all" EcoHealth data related to funding, including bat coronavirus sequences.

The Department of Health and Human Services debarred both EcoHealth and Daszak this month, and NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak told the House subcommittee the funding ban applies across the government, Ernst reminded the agencies.

Tabak's hearing is best known for his admission that NIH funded gain-of-function research at WIV but only under NIH's public definition before Oct. 21, 2021 – not the higher regulatory definition NIH uses to evaluate research proposals.

In a separate letter to Archivist Colleen Shogan Wednesday, Wenstrup asked for a staff briefing about the National Archives and Records Administration's ongoing investigation of Morens' use of personal email and "potential wrongful disposition of official records." 

Because the subcommittee found that Morens uses the end-to-end encrypted Proton email service in addition to Gmail and had asked Daszak "to help collect records potentially responsive to the ongoing NIH and NARA investigations," Wenstrup is concerned that NIH's investigation missed "many government records," he told Shogan.

NIAID's "foia lady" showed Morens "how to make emails disappear after I am FOIA'd but before the search starts," according to an email from Morens to Daszak, read aloud by House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., at Tabak's hearing.

Morens confirmed to Comer at that hearing that the "foia lady" who helped him was since-retired Margaret Moore, The Washington Examiner reported. Wenstrup told Fox News he was likely to bring in Moore, who also goes by "Marge," for a transcribed interview.

NIH removed Moore's directory listing, but public health watchdog U.S. Right to Know preserved an archived version.

Contempt for USRTK, a frequent FOIA filer on COVID origins, shows up in the emails that Wenstrup showed Bertagnolli, the NIH director.

"Do you know these guys?" Morens asked Daszak on Jan. 21, 2022, after receiving a FOIA request from USRTK for five years of his correspondence with "anyone" at EcoHealth. He characterized the nonprofit's website as "alarmist." 

Daszak called USRTK "awful" and "just out to cause trouble and drum up lab leak controversy, and said he hoped NIH "can help reduce the amount that comes out. He was especially concerned about their "embarrassing" emails "criticizing the lab lakers," which "will be reported as showing that we were 'conspiring' in some way."

USRTK posted a FOIA production that shows Morens thanking Baylor College of Medicine professor Peter Hotez, with Daszak copied on the June 29, 2021, email, for "bitch-slapping" a redacted person on Twitter. Hotez asked Morens to let a redacted name "know I'm defending him on Twitter today."

The target of Hotez's bitch-slapping appears to be House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who had tweeted the same day that Fauci "wasn't square with us" about initial scientific skepticism that SARS-CoV-2 had a natural origin. Hotez quote-tweeted Jordan: "The awful attacks on scientists from the extremists continue."

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