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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.
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.
But the Daily Mail failed to note that context, as did the Newsmax reporter, who on April 17 asked Trump: "There was also another report [saying] that the NIH under the Obama administration in 2015 gave that lab $3.7 million in a grant. Why would the US give a grant like that to China?”
Newsmax reporter Emerald Robinson did not return a request for comment.
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.
“China for the last 10 to 12 years has been carrying on these experiments, including in this Wuhan laboratory, with animals, and actually making this virus more dangerous,” Giuliani said on the show. “You could say that’s for scientific purposes, or you could say that’s for the purpose of weaponizing them.”
“'Paid for the Damn Virus That’s Killing Us': Giuliani Rips Fauci Over Grants to Wuhan Laboratory,” said a Washington Examiner headline on April 26, gathering over 150,000 Facebook likes, shares, and comments.
“Anthony Fauci Should Explain '$3.7 Million to the Wuhan Laboratory'” read a headline in the Washington Times on April 27, which received over 165,000 Facebook likes, shares, and comments.
Rep. Matt Gaetz and Newsweek may have also perpetuated the falsely shaded narrative, but the most popular piece of content about the grants came from the Next News Network, a YouTube channel known for circulating baseless claims, including a fabricated story about President Bill Clinton sexually assaulting a teenager. Hosted by commentator and conspiracy theorist Gary Franchi, the channel has over a million subscribers and surpassed a billion views in December, according to Forbes.
On April 19, the Next News Network posted a video about the grants, which has received over 2.3 million views. In it, osteopath Rashid Buttar drew a direct line between the grant, Fauci, and the pandemic. According to YouTube, the video did not violate the social media company's policies.
“Is Fauci directly responsible for this pandemic?” Franchi asked Buttar in the clip.
“I’m going to say this: I’ve seen some petitions going around." Buttar responded. “I think he’s a criminal. He’s going against the law. He’s going against the government.”
Franchi told BuzzFeed News he was asking Buttar "to clarify his belief that Dr. Fauci’s work with coronaviruses has led to the pandemic.”
He added: “The video as a whole revolves around President Trump responding to a reporter that he is investigating the widely reported 3.7 million dollars sent to the Wuhan Lab in 2015 by the NIH to continue coronavirus research after a moratorium was placed on such research in the United States and Dr. Fauci’s involvement with the funding of that research.”
In addition to spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic, Buttar has a history of action taken against him by medical authorities. In 2010, the North Carolina medical board reprimanded him for, among other complaints, three cancer patients who sought treatment from him and paid for treatment that had “no known value for the treatment of cancer.”
“Buttar has spent years selling skin drops at $150 a bottle as a treatment for diseases ranging from autism to cancer,” WCNC reported at the time.
In 2013, the FDA sent Buttar a warning letter for promoting and distributing unapproved medical products on his websites and YouTube videos.
Buttar did not respond to a request for comment on his statements about Dr. Fauci.
"The medical board and FDA have a responsibility to make sure doctors don't push too close to the edge," he said in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News. "The regulatory bodies serve an important function and are needed to safeguard the public."