Michael Barone: COVID-19: Another Fail-Safe Institution Proves Not So Safe

The perspectives and thoughts expressed in this op-ed are the exclusive purview of the author.

Between 1998 and 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health was doubled. This was an extraordinary enterprise after the multi-year, post-Cold War decline in defense spending and at a time when government agency budgets tended to be increased marginally or carried over from previous years.

It was a bipartisan project put into effect by two Senate appropriators, Republican Arlen Specter and Democrat Tom Harkin, with the support of the Clinton and Bush administrations — and during years when, except for one 18-month interval, Republicans had majorities in both houses of Congress.

At the time, I thought this was a good idea. Hadn’t health research produced cures and improved treatments for many diseases and conditions? Wasn’t health research the best thing for the government to spend money on after national defense?

Now I’m not so sure. After watching the public health agencies flounder and flail during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in light of testimony and retrospective evidence coming mainly out of Republican-run House hearings, it has struck me that putting all those huge piles of money in a small cluster of government bureaucracies was not such a good idea.

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Centralization is supposed to prioritize competence and produce efficiency. But it can also squeeze out intellectual diversity and serve the selfish interests of those in charge.

Case in point: the question of whether COVID-19 resulted from a leak from the Wuhan, China, communicable diseases laboratory, financed in large part by Francis Collins’ NIH and Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. I’ve returned to this matter multiple times, in June 2021, March 2023, July 2023, Nov. 2023, Dec. 2023 and Feb. 2024.

Obviously, Fauci and Collins’ centralized control over vast sums of research money produced this change of view among scientists with professional credentials but the personal ethics characteristic of a much older profession. Then, with breathtaking dishonesty, Fauci referred the press to the article as if he had nothing to do with it.

The question remains open, although it seems increasingly likely that a lab leak was responsible. However, given Chinese secrecy, there isn’t and may never be an indisputable answer. Nevertheless, Fauci and Collins sought to supply one almost instantly. They instructed NIH-supported scientists, including some who thought the lab leak theory likely, to write a “scientific” paper claiming a lab leak was not “plausible.” Facebook and other social media platforms chimed in to suppress and discredit the disfavored theory.

Why the lies and dissembling? The facts point to the conclusion that Fauci, with Collins in tow, wanted to divert attention from the “gain of function” research that NIAID had sponsored and financed at the Wuhan laboratory in the past.

Such research is intended to make a virus more transmissible, presumably to help scientists learn how to fight it. But, with hospital wards crammed with COVID-19 patients, Fauci evidently didn’t want to make the argument for it. Instead, in later testimony before Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), he advanced slippery definitions and argued he had never pushed “gain of function” research at all.

It should not be surprising that an institutional leader capable of such dishonesty would, as Fauci has recently admitted, support 6-foot distancing and mandatory masking of schoolchildren with no scientific evidence at all. Others, especially poor students in union-run public school systems, have paid the price.

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Not once during the pandemic, as Joseph Nocera and Bethany McLean have reported, did the U.S. government’s vast health research apparatus conduct or finance any random control tests of COVID-19 treatments or protocols.

Others did better. Former New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade and British journalist Matt Ridley have kept probing and, in articles and books, making arguments and turning up evidence in favor of the lab leak theory. In time the FBI and Biden Energy Department have concluded COVID-19 was likely spread by a lab leak.

The matter has become partisan, with Democrats defending Fauci, and left-wing journalists like the Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli claiming the theory has “racist roots,” even though the only significant racism against Asians today comes from selective colleges’ admissions offices, and street and subway thugs.

The inconvenient fact for Republicans is former President Donald Trump acquiesced in Fauci’s recommendations. The inconvenient fact for Democrats is that their defense of Fauci and scorn for the lab leak theory is undercut by the review of the evidence President Joe Biden ordered.

The problem is not so much partisan as institutional. The centralization of health research in a huge NIH and Fauci’s dominance of NIAID for 38 years produced, in an emergency system, not good but bad science. As often happens, attempts to create a fail-safe system ended up creating a system sure to fail.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, “Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America’s Revolutionary Leaders,” is now available.


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