Email suggests Fauci, Collins covertly contributed to COVID natural origin paper: watchdog

Former NIH Director Francis Collins told former Senate investigator years earlier that NIH can sanction grantees for ghostwriting. Collins and Fauci used "proximal origins" paper to delegitimize lab-leak theory.

Published: December 6, 2022 4:47pm

Updated: December 6, 2022 11:32pm

The federal officials most responsible for shaping COVID-19 origin narratives may have covertly contributed to a March 2020 research paper concluding that "SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct" and rejecting the plausibility of "any type of laboratory-based scenario."

Newly disclosed emails show the corresponding author, Scripps Research Institute immunologist Kristian Andersen, thanked Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci for their "advice and leadership as we have been working through the SARS-CoV-2 origins' paper."

The then-directors of the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases went on to cite the Nature Medicine paper in their public comments rejecting the possibility of a viral leak from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Wuhan Institute of Virology.

At a White House press conference in April 2020, Fauci told a reporter to review the paper by "a group of highly qualified evolutionary virologists" who concluded the viral sequence mutations were "totally consistent" with an animal-to-human "jump."

Collins wrote a blog post saying the paper "leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19" and denouncing "outrageous claims" that COVID was "engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick."

The emails suggest Fauci and Collins violated NIH policy by "ghostwriting" parts of the paper, former Senate Finance Committee investigator Paul Thacker wrote in his newsletter Tuesday.

Collins confirmed that NIH "does not condone the practice of ghostwriting" in a 2011 letter to Thacker, who had notified Collins that NIH gave $66.8 million in grants to researchers who used ghostwriters.

The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity would investigate alleged ghostwriting as research misconduct, with possible sanctions including suspension of grants and "debarment," Collins told Thacker, who was then working for the Democrat-aligned Project on Government Oversight. Thacker went on to speak at an international conference on ghostwriting in biomedical research.

The unredacted emails emerged through Freedom of Information Act litigation by investigative journalist Jimmy Tobias, who has written for left-wing media outlets including The Guardian and The Nation. 

He posted them in two tranches totaling about 200 pages, two days before Thanksgiving. One part focuses on Fauci's communications with Jeremy Farrar, director of the science charity Wellcome Trust, and the other, Andersen's communications with Fauci. Some had been released earlier in heavily redacted form, Tobias said.

The messages show Collins and Fauci received a "very rough first draft" of the paper Feb. 4, 2020 from Farrar, who had organized a teleconference days earlier with Fauci and leading infectious disease researchers, including Andersen.

"Eddie and the team ... will send on the edited, cleaner version later," Farrar told Fauci and Collins, referring to University of Sydney virologist Eddie Holmes. Farrar sent the revised draft the next day, including responses to apparent questions Fauci and Collins had raised from the first draft.

A month later, Andersen notified Farrar, Fauci and Collins the paper had been accepted by Nature Medicine. He shared the "accepted version" and draft press release in case they had "any comments, suggestions, or questions" about either. "Nice job on the paper," Fauci responded two days later.

Andersen told Fauci in January 2020 that "some of the features (potentially) look engineered" in SARS-CoV-2 and that Holmes, himself and others "all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory."

They abandoned that conclusion in the paper, however, finding that natural selection can "plausibly explain" the origin. Andersen's NIH funding skyrocketed after he fell in line with Fauci's view of COVID's natural origin, according to whistleblower Andrew Huff, formerly of the federal grant conduit EcoHealth Alliance.

NIH and HHS didn't respond to Just the News queries asking for specificity about the "advice and leadership" Fauci and Collins gave the paper's authors and whether they violated NIH's ghostwriting ban in the process. Andersen's lab at Scripps didn't respond to a request for his explanation of the email.

This spring, Andersen swatted down a whistleblower's claimreported several months earlier by Science writer Jon Cohen, that Andersen's paper, as Cohen paraphrased the tip, "borrowed ideas discounting [gain-of-function research] from CoV experts on the phone call with Fauci."

Journalist Tobias had just posted a heavily redacted version of Cohen's July 27, 2020 email to Andersen and Holmes that forwarded them a letter by a "person who claims to have inside knowledge" of the Fauci call, which prompted Cohen to publicly respond.

The new unredacted emails contain the full letter to Cohen, in which the tipster claims to have heard the story "from two people who were on the initial call with Fauci." 

The call included "two world-class virologists who actually work on coronaviruses" and rejected the "human-engineered" possibility Andersen had shared with Fauci, the tipster said. Andersen and his coauthors then "used (without acknowledgment, of course) all the arguments provided by the coronavirologists" without crediting them in the paper.

Andersen forwarded Cohen's letter with the tipster's claims to Fauci the same day, along with a "draft email that Eddie [Holmes] put together" to respond to Cohen. 

It would have been "negligent" not to discuss a lab-leak possibility, Holmes' draft said, while denying "we all thought it was a lab escape" before allegedly usurping the coronavirus experts' view. Their once-diverse views coalesced around natural origin following the release of pangolin data, Holmes wrote.

Tobias, who posted the unredacted emails, said on Nov. 30 he was scheduled to meet the following week with Senate staffers to discuss the records and how to reform FOIA regarding NIH and other federal agencies. "It shouldn't require a year-long lawsuit to get documents like these," he tweeted.

The teleconference included "a mix of staffers from a variety" of Senate committees, including Judiciary, "which I think is where such a bill would likely originate," Tobias told Just the News. They asked him and his lawyers for reform ideas to make FOIA "work better for the public and journalists."

Collins himself was involved in answering FOIA requests, according to a March report by whistleblower group Empower Oversight, run by former Senate Judiciary investigator Jason Foster.

The group obtained documents under FOIA showing the then-NIH director "personally reviewed and cleared the response to a reporter's FOIA request related to the [coronavirus] sequence deletions" from NIH's Sequence Read Archive. 

The feds belatedly went to court to mask the identities of the Chinese researcher who requested the deletions and NIH handler who approved them.

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