Parsing Francis Collins’s comments on what happened in Wuhan, part four

posted: February 12, 2022

tl;dr: Collins has already prepared his defense for if/when it is proved that the COVID-19 virus leaked from WIV...

(continued from part three):

Collins explains that the official regulatory definition of “gain-of-function pathogen research” is incredibly narrow and in conflict with the public’s understanding

Collins’s sidekick Fauci has faced the most heat in Congress for advocating for (see A flu virus risk worth taking) and funding gain-of-function research; Collins, meanwhile, has kept a lower public profile. Collins feels that the heat Fauci has faced is unfair, primarily because of a conflict between what the public would consider to be gain-of-function research and what the official regulatory definition of gain-of-function pathogen research actually is. Collins, naturally, prefers to stick to the official regulatory definition of “enhanced potential pandemic pathogen” (ePPP) research, which is incredibly narrow. Actually it is shockingly narrow, in my opinion, which makes it another huge mistake for which Collins bears responsibility.

The huge mistake: in order to qualify as an ePPP research project and be subject to the regulations, a project has to involve the manipulation and enhancement of an already known human pathogen. If a scientist wants to take the SARS-1 virus and enhance it in any way to see if it can be made more deadly, that’s ePPP research and subject to strict regulation. But if a scientist wants to experiment with a virus in the wild whose effects on human beings are not yet known, say a “novel coronavirus”, and attempt to engineer it into killer virus that could wipe out the entire human population on earth, that is not ePPP research and is not subject to ePPP regulations. Go for it, Collins is effectively telling the scientific community. The NIH website greenlights most gain-of-function virus research even today: “while ePPP research is a type of so called ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) research, the vast majority of GOF research does not involve ePPP and falls outside the scope of oversight required for research involving ePPPs.”

Here is how Collins justifies the experiments NIH/NIAID funded at WIV, starting at the 8:12 mark: “The experiments being done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a sub-award to our grant to EcoHealth in New York did not meet that standard of requiring that kind of stringent oversight...Was it gain of function? Well in the standard use of that term that you would use in science in general you might say it was...It was not ePPP...ePPP only applies to agents that are known human pathogens of pandemic potential. These were all bat viruses.”

Collins admits to huge flaws in how gain-of-function research is regulated worldwide

With such a narrow definition of ePPP, it should be no surprise that very little gain-of-function virus research gets classified as ePPP and thereby becomes subject to “stringent oversight”. Collins admits that, in the U.S., there have only been three such ePPP experiments in the past few years, all with influenza viruses.

This reveals another of Collins’s mistakes: this “stringent oversight” exists in the U.S., but does not exist worldwide. So when Collins sends U.S. taxpayer money to WIV, he can have dangerous virus research performed with much lower levels of oversight and regulatory interference. This is the same reason American companies like to outsource manufacturing to China: there is less oversight of environmental and safety conditions, and they can get away with practices in China that would not be allowed in the U.S.

Here’s how Collins explains this, at the 17:21 mark: “At the moment, where we have the greatest control, the greatest oversight, is when this is federally funded research...there is no international oversight [with equivalent stringency to the US]...there is some, I wish it were stronger.”

If Collins actually wanted stringent oversight for dangerous virus research, he would insist that it be done in the U.S., and he would insist on a broad definition of dangerous research. That’s the opposite of what he did.

Collins does appear to have some regrets. At the 13:24 mark he says: “If that threshold [of what qualifies as ePPP] needs to be reconsidered, let’s reconsider it.” At the 16:14 mark: “I think the time is right to do this. I’m totally supportive of that...and if somebody decided, ultimately,...we just shouldn’t be doing these experiments under any circumstances, if that was the conclusion, that would be the conclusion.”

Francis Collins in a suit and tie, seated in front of a microphone, with an expression on his face which indicates he'd prefer to be discussing something else

Former Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins being interviewed by Lex Fridman

Collins will never admit he erred in advocating for gain-of-function virus research and in providing U.S. taxpayer funding to WIV for the collection of and experimentation upon novel coronaviruses

It is clear that, based on Collins’s response to probing from Fridman about whether Anthony Fauci made a mistake in his initial recommendation against masks for the general public, that Collins is the type of person who does not admit to making mistakes. Collins would provide the same answer to questions about gain-of-function and funding the WIV that he did to the Fauci mask question at the 28:36 mark: “Now did [I] make an error? No. [I] was making a judgment based on the data that was available at the time.”

Collins has already prepared his defense if/when it is proven that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from WIV

Collins trots out the primary argument for his innocence at the 10:34 mark: “These bat viruses that were being studied [in NIH/NIAID-sponsored research at WIV] had only about 80% similarity in their genomes with SARS-CoV-2.” So, if it is ultimately proven that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from WIV, Collins is saying he is blameless because it wasn’t a direct result of the experiments funded by grants that he authorized.

This ignores the fact that money is fungible. There is no way in practice to provide funding for just the activities described in the grant. Some of the grant money goes towards the general operational costs of the WIV, such as the electricity bill, air filters, disinfectants, and chemicals. Some of it is paid to the employees of WIV, everyone from the top scientists to the janitorial staff. While WIV is obligated to perform the activities described in the grant, the employees are free at other times to do other work, or to do common work that applies to a range of experiments and grants. To cite a very simple example: a janitor does not just sweep a portion of the lab floor dedicated to the experiments of the NIH grant. The janitor sweeps the entire floor. More importantly, WIV scientist Shi Zhengli gets paid by WIV to work on a variety of experiments, and to apply the learnings from one to another.

What is really happening is a trade. When he awards a grant, Collins is saying: “You do a favor for me (perform this research that I want performed) and I will do a favor for you (deposit money in your bank account that you can spend on whatever you want).”

Putting all these comments together, here is Collins’s defense for he did in Wuhan:

When there is failure, who gets the blame: the minion who caused the accident, or the people in charge who set up the risky situation? I blame the people in charge who should have known better. Collins made multiple serious errors: he absolutely should have known better.

Related post: Mistakes weren’t made