Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Dr. Anthony Fauci draws right-wing smear attacks, led by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, based on grants for study of coronaviruses in China, dating to Obama era

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Right-wing conspiracy theorists and media outlets are using a series of U.S. grants to study coronaviruses as grounds for a smear campaign against Dr. Anthony Fauci -- suggesting he is in cahoots with a Chinese laboratory, and the two helped cause the COVID-19 pandemic, or both -- according to a report at BuzzFeed News. The campaign apparently is part of Donald Trump's efforts to blame the pandemic on China and undermine Fauci for failing to be sufficiently deferential to the president.

Fauci yesterday told a Senate committee the country faces "really serious" consequences if it reopens too early. That probably will not help his popularity with the right wing.

The attacks on Fauci started, in part, with an April 26 Tweet from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, suggesting research grants to Wuhan Virology Laboratory were tied to Fauci and essentially helped fund the pandemic. The Web site PolitiFact says Giuliani's assertions -- both about U.S. policy under President Barack Obama and the grant amounts -- are false:

A virology lab in Wuhan, China, continues to draw scrutiny for work it did on bat viruses as part of American-funded research.

To be clear, there is no sign that the coronavirus that has swept around the globe was bioengineered, but suspicions run high, including from President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

PolitiFact then cuts to the chase:

* The United States did not give $3.7 million to a lab in China. That is an incorrect amount. The actual amount was just under $600,000.

* The money that was given was permitted.

BuzzFeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko adds depth to the story:

Right-wing media and conspiracy theorists have seized on a series of grants awarded over the course of six years to study coronaviruses to undermine Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who’s been at the helm of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. The narrative moved to the spotlight at the White House when, during a press conference on April 17, a reporter with Newsmax asked President Donald Trump about the grants, totaling $3.7 million since 2014.

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid known for publishing unreliable stories, first reported the $3.7 million figure on April 11. The paper wrote a story on the funding, parts of which went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Although the article stated that there’s no evidence the novel coronavirus leaked from the lab, it implied a correlation between the grants and the pandemic: "The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 — and doing so with American money — has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source."

Those questions have had real effects. Politico reported on April 27 that the National Institutes of Health would be revoking grants given to New York–based nonprofit organization EcoHealth Alliance in 2019, including funds for 2020 that the nonprofit now has to return.

But in reality, the grants appear to have nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, they were awarded after a different kind of coronavirus — SARS — spread across the world in 2003. The NIH also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute, instead awarding them to EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally. The money helped support research that led to 20 research papers on coronaviruses published over the six years, according to the NIH. It’s not clear whether Fauci was personally involved in the grants in any way.

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes reported on the Trump administration revoking funding for Peter Daszak, a coronavirus researcher with EcoHealth Alliance. Are such actions based on facts? The answer appears to be no, according to BuzzFeed:

Aside from the Wuhan Institute, those funds also went to research facilities in Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore. The grants were meant to “support research that aims to understand what factors allow coronaviruses, including close relatives to SARS, to evolve and jump into the human population and cause disease (called a spillover event),” an NIH spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

“Most emerging human viruses come from wildlife, and these represent a significant threat to public health and biosecurity in the US and globally, as demonstrated by the SARS epidemic of 2002–03, and the current COVID-19 pandemic,” the spokesperson said. “The project includes studying viral diversity in animal (bats) reservoirs, surveying people that live in high-risk communities for evidence of bat-coronavirus infection, and conducting laboratory experiments to analyze and predict which newly discovered viruses pose the greatest threat to human health.”

The grant also wasn’t the first awarded to EcoHealth Alliance. The NIH has been funding infectious disease research projects through the nonprofit since 2005. . . .

For Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, the attacks and conspiracies are part of a larger narrative undermining Fauci and his work. “If you don’t trust the scientist, you don’t trust the science,” Donovan said.

And the right-wing media and conspiratorial YouTube channels have used the grants to stoke that distrust.

On April 26, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani called for an investigation of the grant on a New York morning radio show. Falsely and without evidence, the former mayor of New York implied the virus was created as a biological weapon, blaming Fauci and the administration of President Barack Obama.

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