The Harvard connection

Was a Fauci-endorsed Chinese donation part of the lab-leak cover up?

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On the morning of Sunday February 2, 2020, Anthony Fauci, then in the middle of putting together America’s pandemic response, received an unusual email with a highly unusual request. The email, revealed as part of a tranche of FOIA documents requested by the Intercept, was from George Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School. “Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost, and I met yesterday with a team led by Jack Xia, the CEO of China’s Evergrande Company, and Dr. Jack Liu, Evergrande’s chief health officer,” Daley wrote. Addressing the director of the National Institute of Allergy and…

On the morning of Sunday February 2, 2020, Anthony Fauci, then in the middle of putting together America’s pandemic response, received an unusual email with a highly unusual request. The email, revealed as part of a tranche of FOIA documents requested by the Intercept, was from George Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School. “Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost, and I met yesterday with a team led by Jack Xia, the CEO of China’s Evergrande Company, and Dr. Jack Liu, Evergrande’s chief health officer,” Daley wrote. Addressing the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as “Tony,” he asked for “whatever information you are willing to share on your current efforts to coordinate a response.”

It was an odd question on its own: What business did Evergrande — then the most valuable real estate company on earth, but also widely known to be catastrophically indebted — have with the director of America’s pandemic response? But Daley’s next line was stranger still. “[Xia and Liu] stated thy [sic] were acting on behalf of Dr Zhong Nanshan, China’s key point person on the coronavirus outbreak (see below).” Below was an email from Evergrande’s Liu to Daley which, save for an opening line, is entirely redacted.

Unfamiliar to most Americans, the octogenarian pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan is a national hero in China, where he successfully managed the 2002 SARS outbreak and helped prevent a possible pandemic. Zhong, China’s top epidemiologist and founder of the prestigious Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Disease, is a legend in the tight-knit global public health and virology research communities. That Fauci would have required a Harvard official or a real estate company to coordinate efforts or facilitate contact with Zhong is unthinkable. Nevertheless, Daley informed Fauci that Evergrande’s Xia and Liu, “acting on behalf” of Zhong, had arranged a conference call for the next day, the morning of February 3. Fauci wrote back that afternoon and copied Francis Collins (something he rarely did on hundreds of publicly available emails) assuring Harvard he would follow up with a phone call.

Daley’s email could not have come at a more sensitive time. The day before, Saturday February 1, Fauci had taken part in a conference call now widely acknowledged as one of the most charged events in the search to uncover the origins of SARS-CoV-2. The preceding Friday, Fauci forwarded a Science article exploring theories about the possible origins of the virus to a disease genomics researcher at Scripps in California named Kristian Andersen. The article mentioned a 2015 study authored by University of North Carolina epidemiologist Ralph Baric and Wuhan Institute of Virology researcher Dr. Shi Zhengli — China’s infamous virus-hunting “bat woman” — which modified a bat-borne SARS-like virus to make it transmissible between humans. “If the SARS2 virus were to have been cooked up in Shi’s lab, then its direct prototype would have been the SHC014-CoV/SARS1 chimera [created by Baric and Shi], the potential danger of which concerned many observers and prompted intense discussion,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists later reported.

The discovery of this 2015 study appears to have been a giant red flag for Fauci, who was likely alarmed by the possibility that it might have been funded by the NIH (under which NIAID sits as one of twenty-seven constituent institutes) as it indeed was — despite the original publication failing to disclose this fact. Fauci forwarded the study to his deputy at NIAID, Hugh Auchincloss, with an ominous message: “Hugh: It is essential that we speak this AM… Read this paper as well as the e-mail that I will forward to you. You have tasks today that must be done.”

The news only got worse from there. A little more than an hour after receiving the email from Fauci, Kristian Andersen responded with an alarming observation about the new virus galloping around the world: “The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome [and show] that some of the features (potentially) look engineered,” Andersen wrote (emphasis added). He pointed out that University of Sydney researcher Edward Holmes, another world-class virologist, as well as a small group of top researchers, “all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory.” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, the United Kingdom’s primary private health research funder, would later write that Holmes had 80 percent certainty the virus came from a lab, while Andersen put his certainty level at 60 to 70 percent.

Fauci flew into action, arranging the February 1 conference call which would eventually include NIH boss Francis Collins, Farrar and a handful of leading researchers, including Andersen and Holmes. None of the participants have divulged exactly what was said, and emails referring to its contents have been redacted in their entirety. But according to Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and the House Judiciary Committee who viewed the original emails, many of the leading scientists on the call believed that a lab leak was at least as likely as the zoonotic spillover that had been widely suggested as the origin of the virus, if not more so.

Despite this, just three days after the conference call, a dramatic reversal took place regarding the scientists’ assessment of the possible origin of the virus. In a February 4 email that Andersen wrote to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and which was forwarded to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Andersen claimed the data “conclusively show” that the virus was not engineered and that speculation about a possible lab leak was nothing more than “conspiracy” and “fringe” theories spread by “crackpots.”

On the same day Andersen sent his White House-bound email referring to the “conspiracy,” “fringe,” “crackpot” theory that he himself had laid out seventy-two hours earlier, and just two days after Harvard Medical School’s dean contacted Fauci on behalf of Evergrande, another key development took place, this one (until now) almost entirely overlooked regarding the role it may have played in the effort to shape the narrative about the pandemic’s origin: the Chinese real estate firm on whose behalf George Daley had contacted Fauci pledged a $115 million donation to Harvard Medical School.

The donation, used to fund a Harvard-Evergrande-Guangzhou partnership to study Covid-19 that would come to be known as the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR), was publicly announced in a March 5 Boston Globe op-ed co-authored by Daley; Arlene Sharpe, co-director of Harvard’s Evergrande Center for Immunologic Diseases since 2013; Penny Heaton, then-CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute; Ronald Corley, director of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories; and Bruce Walker, director of the Harvard-affiliated Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital. Science magazine published a feature story on Evergrande’s donation pledge, also on March 5, which quoted Jeremy Farrar, who had no official affiliation with Harvard, Evergrande, China, the city of Boston, or the US government. The article also included a bizarre quote from Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, who told Science that “coronavirus is not good for real estate.”

On the day Evergrande approved the donation (according to its 2020 annual report), another unusual but highly significant event occurred: Fauci took what, according to a Chinese foreign ministry official timeline of early pandemic events details, was his first call during the pandemic with the head of the Chinese CDC, George Gao, “to exchange information on the epidemic.” The same foreign ministry timeline also details that on the same day, February 4, Harvard and the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Health had the first discussion on “scientific research cooperation” concerning the virus.

Gao, an “old friend” of Farrar’s, according to the latter, is a principal figure in the Global Virome Project, an initiative created and co-led by Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance, whose aim is to identify, collect and catalog 99 percent of the world’s estimated million-plus viruses that could potentially harm humans. The GVP is the billion-dollar embodiment of an approach to virology which holds that the active investigation of all potentially harmful viruses will enable scientists to head off or contain outbreaks, including through anticipatory vaccine research. This approach is highly controversial among scientists, many of whom believe that the danger it holds (namely, of bringing humans in close contact with viruses carrying pandemic potential) far exceeds any real benefit. Nevertheless, it was this guiding philosophy that sent scientists like Shi Zhengli (whose Wuhan lab in 2013 sequenced the closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2, RaTG13) into caves across China searching for new viruses. With Gao, the Chinese CDC was given a prominent role in the initiative.

No more than two days after the Fauci-Gao call and the announcement of Evergrande’s donation, Daszak began asking prominent scientists to sign a letter condemning the lab-leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory and affirming a scientific consensus on the pandemic’s origins. Published in the Lancet, the letter would be frequently cited by media outlets that sought to discredit the lab-leak theory for over a year. But many of the Lancet letter’s twenty-seven signatories had apparent conflicts of interest, because, as those involved in the Harvard donation have all but acknowledged, the lines between China’s largest real estate firm and its government are hardly clear cut. For example, NEIDL, one of just two US National Biocontainment Laboratories, was run by Ronald Corley, co-author of the op-ed that announced the Harvard-Evergrande donation. NEIDL was in line to receive millions of dollars in Evergrande giving. Other signatories included Farrar, who had gone on record to praise the Evergrande-Harvard deal, Dennis Carroll, chair of the Global Virome Project, and, of course Daszak himself.

The passage of China’s notorious 2017 National Intelligence Law led Australia’s foreign investment regulator to declare that there is effectively “no such thing” as a private company in China. And within China, this dynamic is even more pronounced. In 2018, political commentator Zhang Lin observed, in response to the phenomenon of wary Chinese executives making increasingly dramatic statements of state allegiance, that “they act as if they are being chased by a bear. They are powerless to control the bear, so they are competing to outrun each other to escape.”

One prominent such statement was made by Evergrande’s Xu Jiayin, who, in a 2018 speech two months after his visit to Harvard, declared that “everything that Evergrande and I have, it is all given by the Party, given by the State, given by society.” Unlike some of his disappeared colleagues, Xu never shied away from openly acknowledging this debt. Instead, he has embraced it, serving for nearly twenty years not just as the chairman of Evergrande’s corporate board but of the company’s Party cadre, the CCP’s liaison and oversight structure used to ensure Party loyalty and obedience to the state.

There is little doubt that George Daley and Anthony Fauci, both of whom have extensive experience cooperating with Chinese scientific institutions, would have understood the distinction between working with a Chinese lab or vaccine program and taking enormous sums from a private real estate behemoth with ties to the CCP. Yet not only did Daley apparently seek to involve Fauci in this deal but Fauci — as Daley himself would later go on record to say — went so far as to “endorse” it. The question all this provokes is, again, why?

In subsequent interviews, HMS chief George Daley presented Evergrande’s decision to insert itself into America’s official science establishment at a critical moment in the debate on the origin of the pandemic as one nation’s reaching out to help another. On the Raise the Line podcast in December 2020 he said that Evergrande founder Xu had contacted Harvard president Larry Bacow in late January because “there were no formal governmental interactions between the NIH or the CDC and China at that time, and so this leader of business in China reached out to Harvard asking for help.” Or, as Daley implied earlier, in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, this was a matter of Chinese government altruism flying in the face of potentially bitter tensions: “Initially, the Chinese were reaching out to us for help. And now, some two months later, the tables have turned, and we’re actually now seeking help from them.”

Daley’s claims that there had been no contact between the NIH or CDC and the Chinese government were not true. On January 3, 2020 — a month before his conversation with Anthony Fauci — George Gao, head of the Chinese CDC, spoke with his counterpart in America, then-head of the CDC Robert Redfield, who offered to immediately send an emergency response team to China. The Chinese government rejected the offer. By the time Evergrande chairman Xu contacted Harvard’s president, the Chinese government had refused repeated offers of assistance from the US CDC and the World Health Organization for close to a month, according to the New York Times.

If China rejected cooperation with the United States so adamantly, why would it suddenly reverse itself a month later — and why would it act through the world’s most prestigious university and not an institution that could facilitate national cooperation, like the WHO, the CDC, or Fauci’s own NIAID? To a significant extent, the answer lies in the special relationship Harvard and the CCP have been developing over decades of collaboration.

“Harvard has a special, extremely special status in China,” says Arthur M. Kleinman, one-time member of the board of directors of Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “When you go to China, you would think there’s only one great university in the world.” Indeed, even the ultranationalist Xi Jinping chose to have his daughter (and only child) who had been at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou for only a year, study instead under a pseudonym at Harvard, where she graduated in 2014.

Harvard’s ties to the CCP date to 1978, when William C. Hsiao, a professor of public health at Harvard, landed a meeting with China’s then-minister of health. Out of that first relationship was born the Harvard China Health Partnership, which exists to this day. In 1997, things got cozier still. During Jiang Zemin’s visit to the United States — the first by a Chinese head of state in over a decade — Jiang gave a speech at Harvard, and concluded the visit with an invitation to Harvard’s president, Neil Rudenstine, to visit China. Rudenstine accepted the offer the following year; students in China lined up for an hour to hear him speak

It was around the time of a 2013 visit to China by Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust that Evergrande entered the fray. The real estate giant founded in 1996 by Xu Jiayin, the “poster child of China’s new ‘crazy rich’” who cultivated a persona as one of the country’s first financial playboys, flying in private jets, shopping for megayachts, and flashing his once-trademark gold Hermès belt buckle as a sign of success. By the time of Faust’s visit, Evergrande was emerging as the unique face of China’s property sector, which now accounts for a full 25-30 percent of the country’s total GDP. And it had global ambitions.

So it’s no surprise that Faust’s 2013 visit culminated in a gift of “university-wide, interdisciplinary support” made by Evergrande, an arrangement that Chinese state-run media would characterize as a “bilateral collaboration.” The gift, which would fund three new centers at Harvard, including the Evergrande Center for Immunologic Diseases, is estimated to have been on the order of $200 million.

But the money, it seems, came with strings attached. In 2015, while the new Evergrande centers were being developed, Chinese political dissident Teng Biao, then a visiting scholar at Harvard, was scheduled to give a talk. But Teng was told by a Harvard official that the event would “threaten the continuation of collaborative programs and joint research with China.” The talk would have to be postponed. “Postpone is a polite word,” Teng later told the Crimson. “They never invited us to give a talk after that.”

The Evergrande centers were only the beginning of Harvard’s relationship with the company. In July 2018, Larry Bacow — then just ten days into his tenure as president — welcomed Xi to Cambridge, hosting a banquet in his honor and giving him a personal tour of campus and research facilities. As recently as 2019, Bacow visited Xi Jinping and gave a speech at Peking University, an institution run by a senior intelligence official from the Ministry of State Security, in which he praised ties between the two institutions for “defending academic values that transcend the boundaries of any one country.”

The $115 million donation to Harvard Medical School came at a critical moment. For nine of the previous ten years, HMS had run a staggering deficit. Despite Harvard’s gargantuan endowment, the university famously uses a financial practice known as “every tub on its own bottom” (or ETOB), meaning each school is responsible for its own bottom line. In 2016, HMS reported a $49 million loss; in 2017 it lost $44 million. For 2020, the year of the donation, HMS projected a loss of $65 million. In this context, the Evergrande money indeed represented, in the words of the op-ed announcing it, a “historic opportunity.”

For Evergrande, the timing was also significant — albeit for different reasons. Between 2016 and 2020, Evergrande’s debt doubled. In 2018, China’s central bank identified Evergrande as “one of few financial holding conglomerates on its watch that it said could cause systemic risk.” By March 2020 — the same month it pledged $115 million to Harvard — Evergrande set a target to reduce its debt by $23.3 billion each year for three years. Less than six months later, Evergrande was reportedly “pleading” for cash, its meltdown coming to be seen as potentially the single biggest threat to the entire Chinese financial system, drawing the ire of the government, which was clamping down on private debt.

It was in this context that the beleaguered company promised nine figures to a US university with an eleven-figure endowment. Why?

According to a senior figure from the US science establishment, three campaigns in early 2020 laid the groundwork for the false narrative that the possibility of a lab-accident origin is a mere “conspiracy theory” promulgated by “fringe” elements. According to the scientist, the first of these campaigns was the Lancet letter organized by Daszak, the second was the “proximal origin” commentary in Nature Medicine, organized by Fauci and Farrar, and the third, run through the National Academy of Sciences, was organized primarily by Daszak, Fauci and Ralph Baric. The Evergrande payment to Harvard Medical School may have been another, the scientist says. “Harvard Medical School has lots of faculty. Lots of experts regularly consulted by the media. With millions from Evergrande on the table, those experts could be relied on to support, or at least not oppose, the false narrative concerning the origin of the pandemic.”

Harvard Medical School had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

On January 16, 2022, almost two years after Evergrande’s landmark donation announcement, the Boston Globe reported that the embattled real estate firm had “reneged” on its pledge to Harvard Medical School. All in all, HMS would see just $12 million of the promised $115 million donation. For Evergrande, which attached its brand to numerous scientific studies and enjoyed a channel to America’s top science officials at a bargain price, this was the deal of the century. But the rest of us are left wondering why Fauci, America’s most powerful science official and the man entrusted with running its pandemic response, would not only take time from a schedule in which every minute counted not only to entertain but to endorse a deal with a colossally indebted Chinese real estate firm.

“Fortunately we have more than survived what could have been financial ruin,” said Bruce Walker of MassCPR, one of the authors of the 2020 op-ed announcing the donation. “I sincerely cannot think of a more important effort that I’ve had the privilege to convene,” said George Daley on the demise of MassCPR, “and I’ve been awed and inspired by how it’s grown and flourished.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2022 World edition.