EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the ninth article in our ‘Gain-of-Function Hall of Shame’ series profiling key players in gain-of-function research.
I think a lot of good has come from it. From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our budget into defending against bioterrorism.
—David R. Franz
When we began this series on the scientists, policy makers and funders involved in gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses and other potential pandemic pathogens, the lab-origin theory of COVID-19 was decidedly fringe.
The natural-origin theory ruled, with few people willing to point out that the emperor wore no clothes when actual links to the Wuhan wet market or an animal carrier of the virus couldn’t be established.
As we write now, popular demand is growing for an investigation into a potential lab-origin. The January 2021 publication of Nicholson Baker’s long-form investigative piece, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis,” in New York Magazine signaled a watershed moment in the movement for COVID-19 truth.
Discovery of the truth is hampered by the recent crackdown on free speech by the tech companies running social media platforms since January 6. That was the day demonstrators, encouraged by their president, laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. Protected by a thin line of riot-clad cops behind metal barricades, the building was easily breached by a massive crowd that had been allowed to march right up to its doors. The crowd-control failure proved deadly for both sides. Ashli Bobbitt, a woman attempting to move through a broken door, was shot to death (VIDEO) at close range by an unarmed officer who gave no warnings and was hidden from her view. In a separate incident, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick died at the hospital after allegedly being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher. While there is video of a rioter using a fire extinguisher as a weapon, it has not been alleged that was the victim of that attack was Sicknick.
Blaming Trump’s Tweets for the violence, tech companies moved quickly to limit his social media presence. Twitter permanently removed his @realDonaldTrump account, with more than 88 million followers. Facebook has banned Trump for the remainder of his term. Parler was the only major social media site to oppose the censorship. The plug was pulled on its 15 million users by Apple and Google, which hosted its app, and Amazon, which hosted its website.
There’s nothing we like about Trump, but we like censorship even less, if that’s possible. We support H.R. 7808, the Stop the Censorship Act of 2020, introduced by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) at the end of July. This bill would only allow tech companies to censor content that is actually "unlawful, or that promotes violence or terrorism," not content they find merely “objectionable.”
We have to admit, we won’t miss Trump’s tweets, but we do miss the independent news sites that have been kicked off Twitter recently, most of all The Last American Vagabond, which has done excellent reporting on the origins of COVID-19.
Even in the midst of this unprecedented censorship, we predict that the obvious need to investigate the lab origins of COVID-19 will follow the same trajectory from conspiracy theory to conventional wisdom that the military origins of the anthrax attacks did.
Back in 2001, everyone took for granted that Islamic terrorists were behind the anthrax attacks.
The Bush Administration used its lies about the attacks to gain acceptance for the war on Iraq, the Patriot Act, the warrantless surveillance of Americans and even the so-called “targeted killing” of U.S. citizens.
Eventually, the anthrax in the letters mailed to two key Democratic Senators, Majority Leader Tom Dashle and Judiciary Committee Chair Parick Leahy, and several members of the media, was conclusively traced back to the Pentagon’s top bioweapons laboratory, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), and pinned on a Fort Detrick scientist.
The 2001 anthrax attacks and the risky gain-of-function experiments on bat coronaviruses that may have caused the COVID-19 pandemic share three eerie similarities.
First is the government funding.
In both the anthrax experiments of the 1990s and the coronavirus research of the 2010s, military and civilian U.S. agencies simultaneously financed the creation of the dangerous biological agents and the production of the medical countermeasures needed to defend against them.
Second is the biotech bonanza.
Pharmaceutical companies make easy money off wars and pandemics. Just ask Emergent BioSolutions. It got its big break, under the name BioPort, manufacturing anthrax vaccine for the military and now it’s got government contracts for COVID.
The taxpayer funding for experimental vaccines, antivirals or antibiotics isn’t the only windfall for pharmaceutical companies. The stock-market hype that follows public financing allows investors with good timing to get rich―even off the drugs that prove useless, end up unused or are eventually found to be too dangerous. “Emergency use” approvals come with liability waivers that make that rollercoaster ride risk free.
This pattern has played out over and over again. Brian Berletic, in his well-researched piece for 21st Century Wire, calls it the Pandemic Industrial Complex. He describes what’s happening now with COVID-19, but he also retraces the 2009 swine flu heist, the well-documented case of Roche using H1N1 to profit off Tamiflu (oseltamivir). After the money was made, it turned out that governments stockpiling had wasted billions of dollars and the World Health Organization (WHO) had based its advice to buy the drug on the word of scientists with financial ties to the company.
Berletic doesn’t mention that H1N1 may have been the result of a lab accident. That was the hypothesis proposed by Adrian Gibbs, a scientist who had participated in research that led to the development of Roche's Tamiflu. WHO immediately dismissed his theory (even before Gibbs’ paper was published), but it hasn’t actually been debunked. An experiment to demonstrate how H1N1 could have emerged naturally from the reassortment of existing viruses failed.
Third is the people involved.
In the Trump Administration, Kadlec and Hassell have been the Pandemic Industrial Complex’s kingmakers. When Biden cleans house, he should oust these two for corruption, including “seeking $100 million for labs that Hassell told Kadlec in an email were ‘in trouble for shady dealings, illegal accounting, and lack of accountability’ for unspecified Department of Defense projects.”
In this installment of the Gain-of-Function Hall of Shame, we add fellow anthrax alumnus David R. Franz, now an adviser to EcoHealth Alliance, the coronavirus-hunting funder of the Wuhan Institute of Virology that we covered in our profile of Peter Daszak.
Franz is a retired army colonel who served at USAMRIID beginning in 1987. He was Chief of the Cardiorespiratory Toxicology Department (1987-1989), Chief of the Toxicology Division (1989-1992), Deputy Commander (1993-1995), and Commander (1995-1998).
His years as commander overlap with those of the covert biological weapons programs described in Judith Miller’s book Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, and he was a source for much of the information about them in the book. These included Projects Jefferson (the genetic engineering of vaccine-resistant anthrax, something the U.S. military had been doing since the 1980s), Clear Vision (the production of “biobomblets” that could be used to disperse anthrax), and Bite Size and Bacchus, or BACUS, Biotechnology Activity Characterization by Unconventional Signatures (the production of anthrax simulant outside the lab, as a terrorist cell might).
In August 1998, Franz left USAMRIID to work at the Southern Research Institute, a Pentagon biodefense contractor. SRI was one of the labs that, like USAMRIID, could have been a source of the virulent Ames anthrax used in the 2001 attacks. We know this because, in 2004, it accidentally sent live spores of this strain to a children's hospital in Oakland. This made news and an SRI spokesperson was quoted saying they had been working with the pathogen since 2001.
David Franz was understood to be within the circle of potential suspects, but he was never fingered in the FBI’s investigation.
To this day, no one knows who did it.
There were three people variously blamed for the attack, but none of them were ever charged with a crime, let alone brought to trial. Ayaad Assaad, Steven Hatfill and Bruce Ivins each worked under Franz at USAMRIID.
The Arab Patsy
Whoever orchestrated the anthrax attacks wanted them blamed on Islamic terrorists. Each of the anthrax-filled letters read “DEATH TO AMERICA, DEATH TO ISRAEL, ALLAH IS GREAT.”
After 9/11, but before the anthrax attacks had been discovered, the FBI received a letter warning that a former USAMRIID scientist, the Egyptian-born Ayaad Assaad, was planning a biological attack. Laura Rozen reported in Salon:
"Dr. Assaad is a potential biological terrorist," the letter stated, according to Assaad and [his lawyer] McDermott. The letter was received by the FBI in Quantico, Va., but Assaad did not learn from the FBI where it had been mailed from. "I have worked with Dr. Assaad," the letter continued, "and I heard him say that he has a vendetta against the U.S. government and that if anything happens to him, he told his sons to carry on."
According to Assaad, "The letter-writer clearly knew my entire background, my training in both chemical and biological agents, my security clearance, what floor where I work now, that I have two sons, what train I take to work, and where I live.
"The letter warned the FBI to stop me," he said.
At the time, Assaad was involved in a lawsuit against USAMRIID, claiming that he had gone to his supervisor, David Franz, asking him to stop his coworkers, Charles Brown, Marian Rippy and Philip Zack, who had formed a “Camel Club” to harass Assaad with racially charged and sexually explicit poems and objects. He charged that Franz had “kicked me out of his office and slammed the door in my face” and later fired him in retaliation for his complaints. The FBI quickly cleared Assaad of any connection to the anthrax attacks.
The FBI never tried to trace the source of the accusatory letter, even though it may have been one of the best leads on whodunnit. As the Hartford Courant reported:
Assaad said he believes the note's timing makes the author a suspect in the anthrax attacks, and he is convinced that details of his work contained in the letter mean the author must be a former Fort Detrick colleague.
Brown said that he doesn't know who sent the letter, but that Assaad's nationality and expertise in biological agents made him an obvious subject of concern after Sept. 11.
Don Foster, an expert on language forensics assisting the FBI, searched “through documents by some 40 USAMRIID employees” and “found writings by a female officer that looked like a perfect match.”
Foster doesn’t name names, so we don’t know who the female officer was. As Assaad’s Wikipedia page puts it, “he did not name Marian Rippy directly.”
One thing we do know is that racial harassment wasn’t the only thing David Franz let Rippy and Zack get away with under his watch.
During the same time that their Camel Club was active, an internal investigation revealed that 27 sets of specimens were reported missing at Fort Detrick and that secret research was being done in the lab outside of work hours.
Dr. Mary Beth Downs told investigators that she had come to work several times in January and February of 1992 to find that someone had been in the lab at odd hours, clumsily using the sophisticated electron microscope to conduct some kind of off-the-books research.
After one weekend in February, Downs discovered that someone had been in the lab using the microscope to take photos of slides, and apparently had forgotten to reset a feature on the microscope that imprints each photo with a label. After taking a few pictures of her own slides that morning, Downs was surprised to see ``Antrax 005'' emblazoned on her negatives.
Downs also noted that an automatic counter on the camera, like an odometer on a car, had been rolled back to hide the fact that pictures had been taken over the weekend. She wrote of her findings in a memo to Langford, noting that whoever was using the microscope was ``either in a big hurry or didn't know what they were doing.''
Documents from the inquiry show that one unauthorized person who was observed entering the lab building at night was … Lt. Col. Philip Zack, who at the time no longer worked at Fort Detrick. A surveillance camera recorded Zack being let in at 8:40 p.m. on Jan. 23, 1992, apparently by Dr. Marian Rippy, a lab pathologist and close friend of Zack's, according to a report filed by a security guard.
Of course, there were other female scientists at USAMRIID who Don Foster may have been referring to. One is Patricia Fellows, a scientist who provided evidence that placed Bruce Ivins at the scene of the crime and who worked on anthrax with David Franz at the Southern Research Institute.
The Well-Paid Patsy
Once a “person of interest” in the FBI’s anthrax investigation, Steven Hatfill has since carefully controlled his reputation through a series of lawsuits targeting the government, news outlets, journalists and bloggers, including Don Foster, who wrote the 2003 article, “The Message in the Anthrax,” for Vanity Fair, and Luigi Warren, author of the Hatfill Deception blog.
In 2008, the Justice Department settled a lawsuit Hatfill brought under the Privacy Act accusing F.B.I. agents and Justice Department officials of leaking information about him to the news media. The government agreed to pay him $2.825 million in cash and an annuity of $150,000 a year for 20 years.
Hatfill worked at USAMRIID from 1997 to 1999, overlapping with the years Franz was in command.
In the years immediately preceding the anthrax attacks, Hatfill and Franz were each working on government anthrax projects with private contractors. As the Baltimore Sun reported:
Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, the former Fort Detrick biodefense researcher … commissioned a 1999 study that described a fictional terrorist attack in which an envelope containing weapons-grade anthrax is opened in an office.
The study, written by a veteran of the old U.S. bioweapons program, was submitted to Hatfill and a colleague at Science Applications International Corp., the McLean, Va., defense contractor where he then worked.
It discusses the danger of anthrax spores spreading through the air and the requirements for decontamination after various kinds of attacks. The author, William C. Patrick III, describes placing 2.5 grams of Bacillus globigii, an anthrax simulant, in a standard business envelope - slightly more than the estimated amount of anthrax in each of the letters that killed five people last fall.
During the same period, Franz was at the Southern Research Institute (SRI) which was working on an anthrax project for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). SRI has received $640.3 million in government funding since 2001.
In 1999-2001, DARPA contracted with SRI and other firms for microencapsulated anthrax. In their 2012 article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense, “Evidence for the Source of the 2001 Attack Anthrax,” Martin E. Hugh-Jones, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg and Stuart Jacobsen link the forensic evidence from the attack anthrax to the microencapsulation techniques developed by the DARPA contractors. The significance was that microencapsulation would explain the silicon in the attack anthrax. Furthermore, there were no spores containing silicon in the anthrax handled by Bruce Ivins.
Eventually, the facts established that the attack anthrax was microencapsulated with a silicon coating, but, in the fall of 2002, the FBI reported to Congress that there was "no additive" in the Senate anthrax at all. The Bureau based this on the word of Ken Alibek who said he examined electron micrographs of the anthrax spores sent to Senator Daschle and saw no silica. Was he blinded by fear of self-incrimination?
Alibek is the Russian bioweapons scientist recruited to work for the United States who wrote the book Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World--Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It.
As his Wikipedia page states, “Perhaps his signal accomplishment was the creation of a new ‘battle strain’ of anthrax, known as ‘Strain 836,’ later described by the Los Angeles Times as ‘the most virulent and vicious strain of anthrax known to man.’”
Alibek also worked with Franz at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Center for Disaster Preparedness. A 2002 university press release quoted Franz saying, “My role in the center is really to bring people together. Biodefense is a fairly small community, and after spending 27 years in the military, I know almost everybody in the neighborhood.”
The Dead Patsy
It was only after USAMRIID scientist Bruce Ivins had died of a Tylenol overdose in 2008 that the FBI announced their conclusion that he was solely responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks.
The National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) 2011 review of the FBI’s scientific work on the case "conclude[d] that the bureau overstated the strength of genetic analysis linking the mailed anthrax to a supply kept by Bruce E. Ivins."
Not even David Franz believed that Bruce Ivins should have been singled out.
“I just have no reason to suspect him, and I still don't,” Franz told NPR.
Nicholson Baker mentions Ivins’ motives in his COVID origins article, “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis”:
Bruce Ivins, an eccentric, suicidal laboratory scientist from Ohio who worked in vaccine development at Fort Detrick, allegedly wanted to boost the fear level so as to persuade the government to buy more of the patented, genetically engineered anthrax VaxGen vaccine, of which he was a co-inventor. (See David Willman’s fascinating biography of Ivins, Mirage Man.) Fauci’s staff at NIH funded Ivins’s vaccine laboratory and gave $100 million to VaxGen to accelerate vaccine production. (The NIH’s $878 million contract with VaxGen, however, was quietly canceled in 2006; Ivins, who was never charged, killed himself in 2008.)
That Ivins was the lone wolf of the anthrax attacks strains credulity, but the idea that biological attacks on U.S. citizens and Senators could have been launched from U.S. military labs―”to persuade the government to buy more of the patented, genetically engineered … vaccine” seems worth considering, as does another motive: to increase budgets for biodefense.
"I think a lot of good has come from it," Franz said of the 2001 anthrax attack to ABC News in 2002. "From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our  budget into defending against bioterrorism."
Riding the wave of the fear generated from the 2001 anthrax attacks launched from the lab he commanded, Franz led the building of the Biodefense Industrial Complex that may be the source of today’s COVID-19 pandemic.
Moving seamlessly from the anthrax research contracts that should have made Franz a prime suspect in the FBI’s Amerithrax investigation, he oversaw the construction of the U.S. global network of military and civilian high security biodefense labs.
While vice president of the Southern Research Institute’s Chemical and Biological Defense Division, Franz became deputy director of the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (home to one of SRI’s biolabs).
Staying on in the role of deputy director of the Center for Emergency Care Preparedness at UAB, Franz joined the Kansas State University-affiliated Midwest Research Institute (now MRI Global), to act as Chief Biological Scientist. A university press release describes his responsibilities as developing “business activities in the areas of biodefense education and preparation, nonproliferation, cooperative threat reduction and biosafety. He introduces scientists and staff at KSU and MRI to potential collaborative opportunities nationally and internationally.”
Simultaneously, he became Director of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University.
Thanks to Franz’s “business development” expertise, K-State is now the site of the new BSL-4 National Bio- and Agro-Defense Laboratory, and, USAMRIID will soon open the world’s largest high-containment research lab.
Today, in addition to serving as a Science and Policy Advisor to EcoHealth Alliance (a role he shares with fellow Gain-of-Function Hall of Shame inductee Scott Dowell of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Franz is a Principal at SBD Global, a business development consulting firm that specializes in helping corporations land federal contracts with “the world's most opaque and hard-to-navigate” national security agencies.
Dollar signs are in Franz’ eyes again, as Americans die of COVID-19. Capitalizing on the tragedy, he recently penned a plea for increased funding for the Ft. Detrick lab he once commanded.
While we would like to believe that, if COVID-19 was released from a lab, it happened accidentally, unlike the 2001 anthrax attacks, but with people like Franz advising Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, an intentional release cannot be ruled out.
An investigation into every possibility is urgently needed.
Read more from our Gain of Function Hall of Shame.