Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told lawmakers on Wednesday that U.S. tax dollars funded risky gain-of-function research at a Chinese virus lab at the heart of the COVID-19 origin controversy.
Redfield made the remark while responding to questions during a March 8 session of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) asked the former CDC official whether it was likely that “American tax dollars funded the gain-of-function research that created this virus?” referring to the hypothesis that the pathogen behind COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan.
“I think it did,” Redfield replied, adding that he believes funds for the risky research came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies.
Taxpayer-Funded Gain-of-Function Research?
The view that American tax dollars funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) has been disputed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director, former NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, and others.
Gain-of-function research involves altering the properties of a pathogen, such as its virulence, in order to study its potential impact on human health. Such research is controversial because of the potential risks it poses as it makes viruses more lethal.
The question of whether U.S. tax dollars were used to fund gain-of-function research in China has been in the spotlight for some time and remains steeped in controversy as the definition of what exactly constitutes such research is a matter of debate.
“No one knows exactly what counts as gain-of-function, so we disagree as to what needs oversight, much less what that oversight should be,” said Nicholas Evans, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who specializes in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness, in remarks to ASBMB Today.
But some scientists see it as more cut and dried. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, has said the research amounted to gain-of-function and that Fauci and others lied when insisting it was not.
“The materials confirm the grants supported the construction—in Wuhan—of novel chimeric SARS-related coronaviruses that combined a spike gene from one coronavirus with genetic information from another coronavirus, and confirmed the resulting viruses could infect human cells,” Ebright wrote on Twitter.
He was referring to Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by The Intercept, detailing the work of the EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based health organization that used federal money to fund research into bat coronaviruses at the Chinese lab in Wuhan.
“The documents make it clear that assertions by the NIH director, Francis Collins, and the NIAID director, Anthony Fauci, that the NIH did not support gain-of-function research or potential pandemic pathogen enhancement at [the Wuhan Institute of Virology] are untruthful,” he added.
NIH and NIAID have denied that the funding amounted to gain-of-function research, while Fauci himself has repeatedly insisted that it did not.
“The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Fauci said at a Senate hearing on May 11, 2021.
Collins said in a statement on May 19 that “neither NIH nor NIAID have ever approved any grant that would have supported ‘gain-of-function’ research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans.”
Energy Department Backs Lab Leak Theory
The question of whether American taxpayers funded gain-of-function research in China has come back into sharper focus after the U.S. Energy Department—which oversees a network of 17 laboratories in the United States—concluded that the virus that causes COVID-19 likely leaked from the Wuhan lab.
The hearing on Capitol Hill was scheduled after it emerged that the Energy Department had changed its prior assessment of the pandemic’s origins.
Some scientists still strongly back the natural origin theory even though no host animal has been identified more than two years after the pandemic broke out.
While some U.S. agencies lean toward the natural origin theory, the Energy Department has joined the FBI in assessing that COVID-19 likely originated in the Wuhan lab.
Redfield also addressed the question of the lab leak theory in his testimony.
“Even given the information that’s surfaced in the three years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, some have contended that there is really no point in investigating the origins of this virus. I strongly disagree. There is a global need to know what we are dealing with in COVID-19 virus because it affects how we approach the problem to try to prevent the next pandemic,” he wrote in his opening statement.
He added that, because there’s evidence to support the lab leak theory and since gain-of-function research was being carried out on coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab, there should be a halt to gain-of-function experiments.
“Gain-of-function research has long been controversial within the scientific community, and, in my own opinion, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a case study on the potential dangers of such research. While many believe that gain-of-function research is critical to get ahead of viruses by developing vaccines, in this case, I believe it was the exact opposite, unleashing a new virus on the world without any means of stopping it and resulting in the deaths of millions of people,” he said.
“Because of this, it is my opinion that we should call for a moratorium on gain-of-function research until we have a broader debate and we come to a consensus as a community about the value of gain-of-function research. This debate should not be limited to the scientific community. If the decision is to continue gain-of-function research then it must be determined how and where to conduct this research in a safe, responsible, and effective way.”
Meanwhile, 7 out of 11 scientists who are virologists or work in related fields were asked by The Intercept about the documents the publication obtained about EcoHealth Alliance funding of virus research, and they said that the work appears to meet the NIH criteria for gain-of-function research.