Whitecoat Waste

This Activist Group Tapped Into Partisan COVID Politics To Make Big Trouble For Anthony Fauci And The NIH

The White Coat Waste Project has pulled the “lab leak” strings and channeled right-wing anger over COVID to pursue its goal of defunding animal experiments backed by the federal government.

Originally published by BuzzFeed News   |   written by Peter Aldhous

As much of the United States entered COVID lockdowns in April 2020, a tiny group that campaigns against federal funding for animal experiments spotted an opportunity.

Speculation was swirling in right-leaning media that the virus behind the pandemic had emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China, rather than from wildlife sold for food in the city’s markets. As it happened, the White Coat Waste Project had been looking into taxpayer money going to labs in China, including in Wuhan. The group’s founder had strong contacts with Republican politicians and had launched the group with the mission of getting conservatives into animal activism.

The White Coat Waste Project sprung into action, persuading DailyMail.com to run a story saying the US government had funded the lab. Then all hell broke loose.

Then-president Donald Trump, keen to blame China for the pandemic, was soon involved. After prodding from the conservative outlet Newsmax at a press conference, his administration terminated the grant from the National Institutes of Health, which had been awarded to a New York–based nonprofit called the EcoHealth Alliance.

Since then, the controversy over whether the COVID pandemic started with a “lab leak” has escalated into a ferocious fight, with conflicting narratives that paint EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology either as out-of-control scientists who may have caused the pandemic through inherently risky research or as the victims of politically motivated conspiracy theoriesunfairly vilified as the architects of a catastrophe that they worked for years to prevent by studying the risks posed by bat coronaviruses.

Buzzfeed

Two years on, and with the scientific trail 

Buzzfeed

The White Coat Waste Project has subsequently channeled right-wing anger toward Anthony Fauci, the public face of COVID policies including mask and vaccine mandates, accusing his National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the NIH, of funding “

“They jumped on the bandwagon of how I have become public enemy number one of the far right,” Fauci told BuzzFeed News. “If you engage and try and push back on that, it very often only gives it legs. And then it becomes even worse of a problem.”

The White Coat Waste Project
Buzzfeed

White Coat Waste Project’s Anthony Bellotti

Poring over polling data, Bellotti could see that there was a big gap between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. Democrats were much more likely to support campaigns against animal experiments, which had often focused on corporate labs, and Republicans tended to back the research. So Bellotti crafted a message calculated to bring the missing Republicans on board, focusing on government spending. He avoids the label “animal rights,” and has cast the White Coat Waste Project as a “taxpayer watchdog uniting liberty-lovers and animal-lovers.”

In addition to mobilizing support from the political right, there was another reason to target government spending: Congress has the power to shut it down. “The goal isn’t to change hearts and minds, it’s to win the fight,” Bellotti told BuzzFeed News. “We had to get to the root cause of the problem, which was the government spending.”

The group didn’t really take off until 2016, when Bellotti hired Justin Goodman, a former director of laboratory investigations with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to head the White Coat Waste Project’s advocacy efforts. Goodman started digging into government databases and filing FOIA requests to identify projects that the group could campaign to defund.

Even before the pandemic, the White Coat Waste Project scored some victories. An early campaign, launched in a report called “

The cover of the White Coat Waste Project’s 2019 report titled “USDA Kitten Cannibalism

But it was another campaign that sowed the seeds for the attack on EcoHealth and its collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In 2018, the White Coat Waste Project began to target the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, zeroing in on its research into 

That framing drew on an 

After that win, Bellotti said that the White Coat Waste Project started to wonder about what else was being funded with taxpayer dollars outside of the US: “This is horrible stuff. What else is going on?” So Goodman started to look at research in foreign labs funded by the NIH, 

White Coat Waste Project’s Justin Goodman

Still, the White Coat Waste Project

At that time, Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, had never heard of the White Coat Waste Project and had no inkling of the storm that was brewing. “If you would have told me that this chain of events was going to happen, I would have said, ‘No way, this is absolutely impossible,’” he told BuzzFeed News.

Indeed, in late January 2020, officials in Fauci’s institute who were preparing 

Buzzfeed

The White Coat Waste Project started reaching out to Republicans in Congress — and the NIH was soon reeling. By April 13,

Two days later, the alarm bells were ringing at the very top of the NIH. Lawrence Tabak, deputy to Francis Collins, then director of the NIH, 

“I reached Tony, he is now informed,” Collins replied, confirming Fauci was in the loop.

Then, on April 17, a Newsmax reporter asked Trump about the project, repeating the false claim that $3.7 million had gone to the Wuhan institute. “We will end that grant very quickly,” 

Buzzfeed

But three days later, NIH terminated the entire grant, for “convenience.” In a 

Daszak was stunned. So too were many other scientists, disturbed that research that had been exceptionally highly rated in peer review, and which was directly related to the pandemic, could be canceled at a stroke. On May 21, 

EcoHealth’s response came on the day after the Nobelists’ letter, when the group’s pro bono lawyer 

Later, in a congressional hearing, Fauci was asked why the grant was terminated. “It was canceled because the NIH was told to cancel it,” he 

The backlash against Lauer’s initial letter seemed to prompt a rethink from the NIH. As 

“We have concerns that WIV has not satisfied safety requirements under the award, and that EcoHealth Alliance has not satisfied its obligations to monitor the activities of its subrecipient to ensure compliance,” Lauer wrote.

To lift that suspension, EcoHealth would have to respond to seven requests for information and materials. They included: “EcoHealth Alliance must arrange for WIV to submit to an outside inspection team charged to review the lab facilities and lab records, with specific attention to addressing the question of whether WIV staff had SARS-CoV-2 in their possession prior to December 2019.” There was no way a US nonprofit could get the Chinese authorities to agree to such a request: Even the WHO team, including Daszak, that later visited the institute in February 2021 as part of its 

With Lauer’s second letter, the grant entered a state of limbo from which it has yet to emerge — and seems unlikely to.

Buzzfeed

Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images The Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 3, 2021

Since then, 

The White Coat Waste Project once again entered the fray. In November 2021, it released 

Some proposed experiments involved chimeras based on the virus that causes MERS, a respiratory disease that first showed up in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since 

The NIAID officials accepted Daszak’s explanation that these experiments didn’t meet the US government’s definition of gain-of-function research: He had argued that there was no reason to suppose the chimeric viruses would be any more dangerous than the viruses behind MERS and SARS. So the NIAID allowed the research to continue.

Daszak 

“We’ll have to agree to disagree here,” Goodman said, when BuzzFeed News questioned this claim. “We’re not interested in debating the interpretation of these emails or the definition of gain-of-function. We’re only interested in exposing and ending wasteful government spending on dangerous animal experiments.”

Emails and other documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show that the chimera experiments had already been deepening EcoHealth’s problems, as Lauer and other NIH officials looked for evidence that EcoHealth had breached the terms and conditions of its grant.

Daszak’s problem was that the NIH determined that an experiment described in annual progress reports for the grant indicated that one of these viruses had made mice engineered to carry the human receptor targeted by SARS-like viruses sicker than expected and showed signs of rapid growth. “EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away,” NIH deputy director Tabak later wrote in an October 2021 

None of this amounts to a smoking gun linking EcoHealth and the Wuhan institute to the origins of COVID, as the viruses involved were very different to SARS-CoV-2. And in a letter to Lauer and Tabak after the latter’s communication with Comer, Daszak 

But it gave Lauer evidence that he was looking for. EcoHealth is now under audit from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, an independent watchdog that monitors fraud, waste, and other problems, as 

The NIH declined to discuss Lauer’s email and timeline, saying in a statement: “NIH doesn’t comment on internal deliberation of grant awards.”

In December 2021, the White Coat Waste Project 

Buzzfeed

Stefani Reynolds / POOL / AFP via Getty Images Anthony Fauci

The gain-of-function

“What happens when he gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue is that all of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there, and I have threats upon my life, harassment of my family and my children,” Fauci said.

By the time of these acrimonious exchanges, the White Coat Waste Project had embarked on another campaign that made Fauci its main focus. In July 2021, the White Coat Waste Project launched its “

The next month, the White Coat Waste Project 

The story really took off on Oct. 24, 2021, when 24 members of Congress from both parties, led by Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina, 

The Washington Post 

The NIAID tried to address the controversy, stating that it 

The White Coat Waste Project’s critics argue that its demonization of Fauci, seemingly calculated to channel existing right-wing anger with the government scientist seen as the public face of mask and COVID vaccine mandates, has taken animal activism into scary territory.

“They take a tiny sliver of truth, and then around that they build this highly emotional somewhat fictional narrative to build their case,” Jim Newman, director of strategic communications with Americans for Medical Progress, which argues that animal experiments are essential to develop new treatments and vaccines, told BuzzFeed News. Animal activists have long been accused of 

“Of course, the pro-animal experimentation lobby hates that we hold government bosses accountable for funneling tax dollars to cruel and wasteful animal tests,” Goodman said. “We generally don’t run campaigns targeting individual taxpayer-funded animal experimenters to respect their privacy and because we question the approach’s effectiveness, but federal agency bosses are public figures and fair game.”

Threats to Fauci’s life, which began well before the White Coat Waste Project’s BeagleGate campaign, have been 

The White Coat Waste Project stresses that it opposes violence and issued a 

As the White Coat Waste Project has seized its opportunities and gained a higher public profile, the group has itself come under scrutiny. In February, the Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, alleging that the White Coat Waste Project had coordinated with the White Coat Waste Political Action Committee, founded in 2017, in breach of regulations prohibiting tax-exempt nonprofits from engaging in political campaign activities.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Bellotti declined to answer questions about the political action committee, which he said was a separate organization. Goodman later sent a statement describing the Campaign for Accountability’s complaint as a “politically-motivated, baseless, and frivolous attack,” noting: “The WCW Project does not fund activities of the distinct, all-volunteer WCW PAC.”

Despite the partisan dynamics that have driven the White Coat Waste Project’s campaign against funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Bellotti told BuzzFeed News that his group’s goal remains finding ways to unite Democrats and Republicans on defunding animal experiments backed by the US government. “We didn’t know when we launched this that it would get partisan in the way it did,” he said.

The White Coat Waste Project’s latest campaign, again tapping into concern about US taxpayer dollars going to the nation’s most powerful adversaries, might just have broader political appeal. Less than a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it published a 

Peter Aldhous is a reporter for BuzzFeed News.

blog.whitecoatwaste.org/2022/05/13/buzzfeed-how-wcw-cut-the-nih-wuhan-lab-grant/

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