SciCheck Digest

The U.S. indirectly funded some bat coronavirus research at a lab in Wuhan, China. But those experiments could not have led to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, because the viruses used were very different. Yet former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro repeated a false claim that Dr. Anthony Fauci “killed a lot of people” by funding the lab.

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It’s not known how SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, originated. But many scientists suspect the virus “spilled over” into humans from an animal. There is no evidence the virus was created in a lab, let alone as part of any U.S.-funded research.

For over a year, politicians and others have misleadingly cited certain grants awarded to a group collaborating with a lab in Wuhan to incorrectly suggest that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there is a debate about whether some of the research should have been funded or performed, the experiments did not produce SARS-CoV-2, as the National Institutes of Health and others have explained.

The latest iteration of these claims comes from Peter Navarro, former President Donald Trump’s trade adviser, who in a May 16 interview with the conservative outlet Newsmax blamed Fauci for the pandemic and called for his imprisonment.

Navarro began by responding to a clip of Fauci telling CNN on May 15 that he would not serve under Trump if the former president were elected in 2024.

“Tony, you’re fired, dude. There’s no way you’re ever getting back into the Trump White House,” Navarro said, adding that as soon as Republicans take back the House, Fauci would sit in Congress and “confess to creating the virus that’s killed almost a million Americans now.”

“We’re going to fit you for an orange jumpsuit, Tony, you can count on that,” he continued. “So don’t be smug on CNN, dude, okay. You’re fired. And if that’s the only thing that happens to you, Tony, you’ll be lucky because you killed a lot of people by funding this Wuhan lab. You got in bed with the Chinese Communist Party, you lied to the American people.”

Fauci, who has been head of NIAID since 1984 and is one of the most distinguished living scientists, has served under seven presidents, including three Democrats and four Republicans. At age 81, Fauci has said he is thinking of retirement, but has no immediate plans to depart and would not do so until the country is firmly out of danger from COVID-19’s pandemic phase.

Later, Navarro, who has previously misled the public about hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment and shared inaccurate information about COVID-19 vaccines, baselessly stated as fact that the pandemic began at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“This is where the virus started,” he said, pointing to an image of the facility. “This was funded by Tony Fauci. Gain-of-function research is what he went behind the back of Donald Trump and the White House to get going here in 2017 with the Chinese communists. And now we have a pandemic that’s killed almost a million people. I don’t know how this guy is still in public office, he really ought to have a jumpsuit.”

Newsmax shared its interview with Navarro on Facebook, where it received more than 30,000 views in two days.

Fauci Has No Connection to Pandemic Virus

Navarro’s statements are reminiscent of those from other Republicans, including Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have at times also falsely insinuated that NIH-funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology could have led to the creation of SARS-CoV-2.

As we have explained before, NIAID did fund some experiments at WIV as part of a multiyear $3.7 million grant that began in 2014 to the U.S.-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. The research was aimed at understanding the risk of the future emergence of coronaviruses from bats, and a small portion of the money — $600,000 — went to an EcoHealth collaborator at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

But those experiments, which mixed and matched certain elements of bat coronaviruses, couldn’t have produced SARS-CoV-2 because the viruses used were very different.

Analysis of published genomic data and other documents from the grantee demonstrate that the naturally occurring bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant are genetically far distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said in an Oct. 20, 2021, statement, referring to an analysis posted to the NIAID’s website. “Any claims to the contrary are demonstrably false.”

As we’ve written, the NIH analysis shows that the WIV viruses share only about 80% of their genomes with SARS-CoV-2, which is a tremendous difference. Even much more similar viruses — those 96% identical — still differ from SARS-CoV-2 by more than 1,000 nucleotides, and could not have plausibly been the ancestral virus, David Robertson, the head of viral genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow, told us for a previous story.

There is simply no basis to claim that Fauci, via this NIAID grant, has anything to do with the origin of the coronavirus.

Moreover, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 came from WIV or any lab, and many experts say the virus almost certainly was not bioengineered. Indeed, despite continued speculation, largely because of the proximity of certain research institutions to the city of Wuhan, where the first COVID-19 cases were identified, there is no credible evidence of a lab leak.

In contrast, while there is still no proof, multiple lines of evidence, including geolocation and genetic analyses, suggest the pandemic began with a natural spillover at the Huanan market, which sold a variety of live animals for human consumption.

Much of the debate about the WIV experiments has focused on whether they were so-called gain-of-function experiments and whether NIH should have funded them. Paul has an ongoing feud with Fauci over this issue, and each man has accused the other of lying.

Fauci has said the experiments do not count as gain-of-function, which the agency defines in a specific way and refers to research involving “enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential,” or ePPPs. Paul has insisted they do.

In February, the NIH said it had ordered a review of its ePPP policies, which have been controversial.

Regardless of whether certain potentially risky research should be funded or not, it’s inaccurate for Navarro to claim Fauci had a role in starting the pandemic.

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.

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