WaPo: Forget the Paul-Fauci sideshow -- NIH clearly collaborated on dangerous research with China

Will Rand Paul succeed in his criminal referral for perjury? Will Anthony Fauci press a slander claim? All of that might make for good fodder for punditry, Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin argues in a new column, but like their dispute, it mostly misses the point.

The real issue isn’t a narrow definition of “gain of function” when it comes to viral research. It’s that the National Institute of Health collaborated on clearly dangerous research with a country that lacked the expertise to conduct it, and the openness to deal with any consequences of it. And, Rogin warns, they’re going to do it again unless we focus on the real issue rather than the technicalities:

But it doesn’t matter which “gain of function” definition you prefer. What everyone can now see clearly is that NIH was collaborating on risky research with a Chinese lab that has zero transparency and zero accountability during a crisis — and no one in a position of power addressed that risk. Fauci is arguing the system worked. It didn’t. Even if the lab leak theory isn’t true, what’s clear is that we need more oversight of this risky research, both in the United States and in China.

Fauci also told Paul there’s no possibility the research in the paper Paul cited directly led to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but Paul correctly called this out as a straw man. That specific project was only one element of the U.S. government multiagency effort that for years pumped U.S. money and know-how into these Wuhan labs, via the EcoHealth Alliance, including NIH, USAID and the Pentagon. According to an intelligence fact sheet released by the Trump administration and partially confirmed by the Biden administration, the WIV took our help and used it to build another, secret part of the lab, where they worked with the Chinese military.

Congress and the media would be derelict not to examine the decisions by Fauci and others that led to this collaboration. But rather than respond with openness and transparency, Fauci has consistently thrown cold water on the lab leak theory. Right now, NIH and other government agencies are ignoring congressional requests for more information about their relationships with these Chinese labs.

Guess what NIH has on the horizon, too? Another effort to manipulate viruses in labs, including in China:

Looking ahead, we must question whether U.S. government investment in this risky research, especially in collaboration with China, is worth these risks. Certainly, the current plan to spend $1.2 billion to drastically expand the initiative known as the Global Virome Project, an effort to dig up dangerous viruses and experiment on them in labs, including labs in China, must be totally reexamined.

Good Lord. As Rogin says, this is a big problem even if COVID-19 didn’t escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This kind of research requires the strictest laboratory discipline and a completely transparent process. That’s not just to deal with occasional accidents, but also to make sure that this research doesn’t get diverted into biological-warfare efforts. The involvement of the PRC military in WIV’s research should be an enormous red flag for any further partnership in this area.

There is, however, at least one counterargument to that position. Continued engagement, even with China’s track record of deceit and cover-up, still allows us some insight into their research efforts. That has value in intelligence gathering, which China undoubtedly knows but risks on the basis of acquiring American expertise through the process. If this was indeed a lab leak based on GOF research performed for nefarious purposes, it would have likely happened without American collaboration, and might have been even worse without our pressure to maintain security protocols.

Of course, that has a time limit on it as well. China may have already gained enough expertise through their partnership with the NIH to do this on their own. If so, that’s on the NIH and their leadership, including Anthony Fauci, but more appropriately on the political leaders that either allowed that partnership or encouraged it. In that sense, the Paul-Fauci feud is even more of a sideshow when it comes to accountability.

This is the debate we need to be having at the moment, and Rogin hits this nail directly on the head. Scoring points and dunking might be entertaining, but what we need is a serious discussion of the risks and rewards of pursuing this research — especially with a regime as rogue as Beijing’s.