Scientists central to the “lab-leak” theory of COVID-19’s origins visited Anthony Fauci’s institute at the National Institutes of Health in 2017 to discuss their research months before the NIH resumed creating new viruses in the lab — a practice scientists have debated could cause a pandemic.
Wuhan Institute of Virology Scientist Shi Zhengli, known as “the bat woman of China” for her research on SARS-like coronaviruses in bat caves, presented her findings on novel coronaviruses to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases staffers in June 2017, according to a report by U.S. Right to Know.
EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. research organization that funded Shi’s lab, arranged the meeting, which the group’s president Peter Daszak dubbed a “double act” between him and Shi.
Daszak also met with Erik Stemmy, who managed coronavirus research at NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.
Four months later in October, Fauci met with Daszak himself, likely to discuss an outbreak of an animal coronavirus called Swine Acute Diarrheal Syndrome. That same month, Fauci, Daszak and Shi all attended the same scientific conference.
By December of that year, NIH resumed funding for research to develop new viruses in the lab following a three-year pause on the practice over the possibility that such research could cause a pandemic.
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the NIH and by FOIA, reveal that Fauci and his top aides were aware of the novel coronavirus research underway at the pandemic’s epicenter well before 2020.
Despite this, Fauci did not mention the 2017 meeting with Daszak in 2022 during a sworn deposition with the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana. The deposition was part of a lawsuit alleging that he and other White House officials leaned on social media companies to limit debate about COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic.
“I don’t even remember meeting him, but I do know that someone showed me a picture at a meeting where somebody said, here, take a picture with him,” Fauci said of Daszak at the time.
“But that is not unusual, when you go to a scientific meeting, you run into hundreds of people. And I believe that this Dr. Daszak is one of the people that I almost — well, I did run into him because I believe I’ve seen a photograph of he and I together at a meeting.”
Fauci will also provide sworn testimony to congressional investigators this week about his role in the US response to the outbreak.
House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Chairman Brad Wenstrup said in a statement that panel members will “demand explanations for any pandemic-era failures” and Fauci’s “role as the face of America’s COVID-19 public health response.”
Wenstrup predicted that the former NIH official’s testimony “will shed light on topics that no Committee, Member, nor news outlet has ever inquired about before.”
The subcommittee has focused on efforts by Fauci and former NIH Director Francis Collins to silence any disagreement over the “lab leak” theory after obtaining internal communications from the top health officials that revealed they had asked scientists to author a paper in the journal Nature Medicine debunking the theory early in 2020.
The COVID panel also subpoenaed one of Fauci’s top advisers in October for having “likely used his personal email to delete COVID origins documents and evade [Freedom of Information Act] laws.”
Fauci and Collins have both denied in testimony to Congress that the NIH had funded risky gain-of-function research at a lab in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic began in late 2019.
Shi has blasted accusations that the origins of the pandemic came from a fluke lab accident, calling the speculation “filth.”
“How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” she told The New York Times in 2021. “I don’t know how the world has come to this, constantly pouring filth on an innocent scientist.”
The Government Accountability Office issued a report in June 2023 that found NIH had contributed more than $1.4 million to Chinese research institutions between 2014 and 2019 despite serious biosafety concerns, including at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
That research “included genetic experiments to combine naturally occurring bat coronaviruses with SARS and MERS viruses, resulting in hybridized (also known as chimeric) coronavirus strains,” the report states and its funding has since been cut off.