E-mailing a dog virus to other dogs and trying to infect other dogs is not so unusual or controversial when the research is made at our nation’s top biomedical research facility. What is surprising is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is involved in this controversial scientific research at all, let alone amid growing controversy over the Zika virus and related research.
In April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the CDC’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sent an e-mail to a USDA employee — however disturbing its contents were — about research of a method known as “mutant virus delivery to healthy dogs”. The research aims to test the idea that small viruses can still infect and infect the body without causing the human form of Zika.
Fauci is considered a world-class expert in these and related HIV/AIDS research areas. The research is arguably a no-brainer when you consider that a key step in HIV research involves infecting lab animals.
“Experiment [sic] into high impact projects which have direct implications for humans,” he wrote in an April 16 e-mail obtained by Public Citizen, a government watchdog.
How no one at CDC found these disturbing e-mails wasn’t clear and was far from surprising when I contacted the CDC for comment. It seems that much of this involves phone calls — the kind of high-level bureaucratic talk you’d expect during most Saturday morning phone conversations.
The key phrase in Fauci’s e-mail — the one that first drew the public’s attention — was the word “research” rather than “research station.” By most legal and ethical standards, lab monkeys and ferrets (inbred ferrets are a key part of modern HIV research) are properly considered to be research animals. As an expert review panel I helped put together in 2009 (which included me) put it: “The intention of the National Institutes of Health is to fund research stations. Therefore, animals are considered by the NIH to be research animals.”
Contrast that to the use of “pets” when talking about research conducted at commercial facilities like the one where the dogs in question are being housed. This language gets around a key part of the Animal Welfare Act, which limits the use of non-human primates as research animals.
Some people have likened such research to the horrific experiments animals were subjected to prior to his arrival at the CDC. I’m sure that there are many scientists and others who can speak with authority on this subject.
Yet I wonder whether much of the scientific community would be on board. Dr. Fauci is regarded as being at the top of his field, someone whose wisdom — and the thought-leadership qualities that go with it — help save countless lives. There is simply no way, from what I can tell, that he would condone such behavior. This is not a less-than-stellar person who may have made a poor choice — if he did — but a person who you would never consider turning his back on the medical community.
So yes, there is far more to this story than even that. More work needs to be done on this issue and not just by Dr. Fauci.
I am a former advisor on AIDS and HIV to six administrations and one Secretary of Health and Human Services. I have also served on the boards of many organizations and consults with others on this topic.
Given that background, I’m left wondering how Dr. Fauci can find the time to edit, write and proofread documents he may have obtained through his e-mail.