Rand Paul, Anthony Fauci, and Gain-of-Function Research

Earlier this week, Senator Rand Paul once again questioned Dr. Anthony Fauci regarding the funding of gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It was a clear victory. But who, exactly, emerged victorious? The media seems to be split on the matter.

The politician, in our era, has gained much greater visibility. Celebrity, as we have seen from our last president, offers a real electoral advantage. As a consequence, the congressional hearing, never the most dignified setting, has, at times, descended to a kind of performance art. Those in Congress know that, if they’re spicy enough in their questioning, clips will be chopped up and placed on the internet and have a relatively good chance of going viral.

This adds to their name recognition, and to their chances of staying in office or moving up. The politician is incentivized, then, to seek the best soundbite — if necessary, at the truth’s expense.

While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of any living politician — and while I certainly don’t agree with him all the time — I consider Rand Paul to be a lawmaker of uncommon integrity. So I found it all the more disappointing when Paul consistently interrupted Fauci in today’s hearing.

Undoubtedly, Senator Paul knows the game better than I do. And he was perhaps attempting to create such a viral moment — one that could be so easily criticized by his opponents — so that he could be shown asking questions to Fauci that, otherwise, would not gain visibility on CNN or MSNBC.

Any further analysis of the senator’s motivations, in addition to being dull, is quite beside the point. At issue here are the questions he raises and the replies that Dr. Fauci gave.

Here, for context, is an earlier dialogue between Paul and Fauci.

Everything, in both of these videos, centers on gain-of-function research. Before passing judgment on Paul and Fauci’s dialogue, let’s examine the facts as best we can.

Gain-of-Function Research

A PubMed article provides the following definition:

Gain-of-function (GOF) research involves experimentation that aims or is expected to (and/or, perhaps, actually does) increase the transmissibility and/or virulence of pathogens. Such research, when conducted by responsible scientists, usually aims to improve understanding of disease causing agents, their interaction with human hosts, and/or their potential to cause pandemics. The ultimate objective of such research is to better inform public health and preparedness efforts and/or development of medical countermeasures.

The same article notes that, under President Obama, a pause was called on funding gain-of-function research “experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses in particular.” In 2017, however, the moratorium was lifted, and “research on potential pandemic viruses such as avian flu, SARS, and MERS” was allowed to resume. According to Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, Fauci, long an advocate for the controversial technique, was instrumental in this reversal. According to Rogin:

So, Anthony Fauci, the hero of the pandemic, is the most important person in the world of gain-of-function research there is . . . Basically, he is the one disbursing all the grants for this, he is the one who pushed to turn it back on after Obama turned it off, that’s another crazy story, he turned it back on without really consulting the White House.

Here’s Rogin discussing the matter in more detail:

EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology

According to this article, which provides an incredibly thorough account of the dispute, “EcoHealth ultimately received $3.7 million over six years from the NIH and distributed nearly $600,000 of that total to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, a collaborator on the project, pre-approved by NIH.”

Unlike Senator Paul, I don’t have a background in medicine. But the language of the grant would give any lay reader pause:

This project will examine the risk of future coronavirus (CoV) emergence from wildlife using in-depth field investigations across the human-wildlife interface in China, molecular characterization of novel CoVs and host receptor binding domain genes, mathematical models of transmission and evolution, and in vitro and in vivo laboratory studies of host range. Zoonotic CoVs are a significant threat to global health, as demonstrated with the emergence of pandemic severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) in China in 2002, and the recent and ongoing emergence of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV).

As to whether or not the work funded by the grant qualified as gain-of-function research, it depends on which expert you ask. Some, it seems, insist that it wasn’t, since the central goal wasn’t to increase pathogenicity. If a virus became more infections as a result of experimentation — as an unintended consequence — this wouldn’t qualify as gain-of-function research.

Others, however, insist that, whatever wording was used, whatever hairs are split, this research involved making viruses more transmissible to humans.

How Can We Know?

Any discussion of coronavirus is, unfortunately, political. It should be clear, at this point, that if there was gain-of-function research occurring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dr. Fauci would have a vested interest in keeping this information from being discovered. But it doesn’t mean that he’s lying.

There’s too much fog — and these matters are far too complicated for a non-specialist public to discern. That’s what’s so shameful about this whole business. Science is only science when it’s truly impartial, but there’s nobody without a dog in the fight.