Did NIH just admit to funding gain of function research in Wuhan?

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Rand Paul is taking a victory lap after having pressed Fauci repeatedly about this in congressional testimony, only to have Fauci wave him away:

The key bit from a letter from HHS to GOP Rep. James Comer:

The way that’s written — sneakily, it seems — doesn’t sound like gain of function. After all, no function was gained. They took viruses with a naturally occurring spike protein and tested them on genetically engineered mice and found that those viruses were more virulent than expected. Which is dangerous, of course; if a virus like that had escaped the lab, maybe it would have made humans sick too. But the point of “gain of function” is to enhance a virus’s virulence or transmissibility, either by tinkering with its genome or by passing it through a series of animal hosts and having it mutate “naturally” into something more efficient or deadly. Taking a naturally occurring virus and testing it on an animal doesn’t make the virus “gain” anything.

Here’s the key bit from HHS’s protocols on gain of function research. Note the definition of “enhanced PPP”:

The way the letter to Comer is phrased makes it sound like the viruses being tested on mice wouldn’t qualify as an “enhanced PPP.” They were naturally occurring, after all. Scientists were testing to see *how* virulent or transmissible they were, not trying to make them *more* virulent or transmissible.

But look more closely at the phrasing in the letter. It doesn’t say that scientists were testing out naturally occurring viruses. It says they were testing out spike proteins taken from naturally occurring viruses. We already know that researchers in Wuhan were grafting spike proteins from virus A onto virus B in order to test their efficiency, creating chimeras. (We also know that EcoHealth Alliance was interested in grafting furin cleavage sites onto the spike proteins of bat coronaviruses. SARS-CoV-2 famously contains a furin cleavage site that helps it bind better to human cells, a feature not seen in nature in other viruses in its class.)

None of this means that the experiment on the mice described in the letter to Comer produced the virus that caused the pandemic. HHS goes to some lengths to say that that would be genetically impossible, in fact. But if Wuhan scientists were grafting spike proteins from natural virus A onto natural virus B and then testing them on mice engineered to contain human ACE2 receptors, that does sound like gain of function. The HHS letter to Comer is suspiciously oblique about that. Were they testing chimeras on the mice, which would qualify as an “enhanced PPP,” or were they testing naturally occurring viruses that happened to contain spike proteins, which wouldn’t qualify?

I lack the technical ability to find that out but biologist Richard Ebright says they were chimeras:

Asked why the letter wasn’t clear about that, Ebright had a dispiriting reply:

The next round of Paul versus Fauci in Senate testimony will be must-see television. My guess is that Fauci will insist that even if they were running chimeric viruses through genetically engineered animals, that’s still not true gain-of-function research. Scientists conducting true GOF experiments intend to enhance a virus’s virulence or transmissibility so that they can anticipate how a naturally occurring virus might evolve into something more dangerous in the wild. Splicing the spike protein from one virus onto the body of another and then injecting that into cells with human receptors needn’t be part of a deliberate attempt to make the virus more dangerous. It could simply a test to see how dangerous the chimera is.

Which is cold comfort if that chimera were to escape from the lab and ignite a global pandemic. But the point of regulating GOF, it seems, is to keep scientists from intentionally engineering a pathogen which they have reason to believe would wreak havoc on the world. Is that what the Wuhan scientists were doing with their chimeras or were they just testing out which combinations of virus and spike protein were most dangerous to people so that they’d know something bad was afoot if that combo later turned up in nature?

The GOF part of the letter to Comer is getting all the attention in righty media this morning but don’t overlook the admission at the end of the excerpt above that EcoHealth Alliance withheld data about this. Virologist Angela Rasmussen was incensed upon learning that the group hasn’t been forthcoming. Not only is that bad for science by depriving researchers of useful information, it feeds conspiracy theories about the coronavirus’s origins:

Maybe EcoHealth is acting like it has something to hide because … it has something to hide? “Thanks to Tabak’s letter, we know that top NIH officials were unaware of how U.S. funds were being used in Wuhan and are only now — a year and a half into the pandemic — starting to figure it out,” writes Jim Geraghty. “So, what other Wuhan research developments — or accidents — has EcoHealth concealed?” Specifically, did EcoHealth and its Wuhan partners ever go ahead with grafting a furin cleavage site onto the spike protein of a bat coronavirus? Whatever happened to that new virus? Given how suspiciously EcoHealth’s leader, Peter Daszak, has behaved since the start of the pandemic in trying to shoo the public away from the theory that a lab leak caused the pandemic, there’s no reason to give the group any benefit of the doubt at this point.