Anthony Fauci listens during a Senate hearing looking into the state of medical research and budget estimates for the National Institutes of Health in May 2021.

Sparring Over Fauci Turns to Puppies

Right-wing political backlash against national infectious disease chief Anthony Fauci intensified this week over an unexpected issue: beagle puppies.

The dispute was sparked last Friday by a letter to Fauci from a bipartisan group of 24 legislators. The lawmakers criticized the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci runs, for commissioning “costly, cruel, and unnecessary taxpayer-funded experiments” on around 40 dogs. Within days, the issue had heated coverage on the celebrity gossip site TMZ, attention from right-leaning press outlets (as well as on The Washington Post opinion page), and comment from prominent Republican lawmakers, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who asked why Fauci still has a job after the beagle incident and other perceived transgressions.

The uproar over beagles has reignited longstanding debates over the use of animal models in research — and also highlighted how, more than 18 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, Fauci and federal health agencies are subject to intense, and ongoing, scrutiny amid a fiercely polarized political climate.

The organization behind the furor is the White Coat Waste Project, an animal rights group that aims to end federal spending on animal research. Formed in 2013 by former conservative political strategist Anthony Bellotti, the group has targeted Department of Veterans Affairs research and shut down a Food and Drug Administration study on nicotine addiction, arguing that taxpayers should not have to fund research that involves animal subjects. One of its senior staffers used to work at PETA.

“We’re building a broad left-right coalition for one issue we can all agree on — libertarian, vegetarian,” Bellotti told Undark in 2018. He insisted that the private sector would step in to take up any vital biomedical research his organization helped spike, framing the group’s work as taxpayer rights advocacy, not animal rights activism.

Many researchers say that animal models remain a crucial part of lifesaving biomedical research, from studies of cancer to the development of Covid-19 vaccines. As for the beagle research supported by NIAID, the most recent batch of documents that caught lawmakers’ attention show the study was intended to evaluate the toxicity of unnamed antiretroviral drugs. (Such drugs are used to fight pathogens like HIV.) Other NIAID-supported dog research, according to documents recently obtained by the White Coat Waste Project through a public records requests, was intended to develop a vaccine for lymphatic filariasis. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the mosquito-borne parasite infects more than 120 million people, sometimes causing the debilitating swelling condition called elephantiasis. Most victims live in lower-income countries — making this precisely the kind of research that the private sector often has little incentive to pursue.

The beagles, according to the federal documents, were euthanized at the end of the vaccine trial. It’s not clear Fauci had a direct role in approving the experiments.

The White Coat Waste Project has publicized some of its documents about dog experimentation for months. The renewed attention now may have less to do with the dogs, and more to do with political wrangling over the role of Fauci, a leader of the U.S. Covid-19 response, whose statements about government funding of high-risk pathogen research have recently come under renewed scrutiny from lawmakers.

Also in the News:

• When a new variant of the pandemic coronavirus emerged this summer — dubbed Delta Plus because it descended from the highly contagious Delta variant — scientists immediately put it on their watch list. First detected in the United Kingdom in June, the variant, technically known as Delta AY.4.2, showed early signs it could be even more transmissible than Delta. As researchers confirmed this week, that turns out to be true — but not, so far, a game-changer. Delta Plus appears to be only about 10 to 15 percent more transmissible than its parent. By contrast, the Delta variant is considered at least twice as transmissible as the original (Alpha) version of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Still, scientists say even the mild increase in transmissibility makes the new variant worth tracking. The World Health Organization has identified Delta Plus in 42 countries, including the U.S., and CDC director Rochelle Walensky told NBC’s Meet the Press this week that the agency is monitoring the variant “very carefully.” Scientists are hurrying to figure out what exactly causes the increased transmissibility and to quantify the possible risks. One clear message, experts say, is that this coronavirus is continuing to evolve as it seeks new advantages, and additional variants are likely to appear. (STAT)

• Leaked internal research papers and documents from Facebook show how the social media giant “monitors and manipulates” its users while constantly experimenting with their data, according to CNN. The documents — part of a trove dubbed “The Facebook Papers”— show that, in late 2017, user engagement on Facebook posts was considerably down. To boost engagement, the company came up with a plan to tune its News Feed algorithm with a new metric: “meaningful social interactions” or MSI — a scale to rank likes, comments, reshares, and RSVPs to events and evaluate which actions were more meaningful to different types of people. The company tested out MSI by running surveys on users. The deployment of MSI helped Facebook solve its engagement problem, and the company announced that the tool would promote meaningful interactions on the platform by shaping what appeared in users’ News Feeds. But, the new documents show, Facebook employees soon realized that MSI might actually be incentivizing negative posts. In an internal November 2018 memo, employees wrote that the new metric could push some publishers to “take the path that maximizes profits at the expense of their audience’s wellbeing.” Facebook continued to tweak MSI, but did not remove it. In a blog post earlier this month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said after the MSI change, the platform “showed fewer viral videos and more content from friends and family,” and asked whether such a change was really the kind of thing “a company focused on profits over people would do.” (CNN Business)

• A study published Monday in the journal Current Biology reports that one of the biggest lemurs on the planet, called the indri lemur, appears to be able to produce vocal songs with rhythmic structure, something previously only observed in thrush nightingales and humans. While many animals possess musical rhythm, the ability to sing a song with categorical rhythm, meaning maintaining pauses in between beats that are the exact same duration, is far more rare. To discern whether the lemurs truly possessed categorical rhythm, scientists from the University of Turin, along with local primate researchers in Madagascar, recorded vocalizations heard in 20 different groups of lemurs, sung by 39 individual animals. The recordings were then analyzed by biomusicologist Andrea Ravignani at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. The fluffy, tree-dwelling primates’ songs were found to possess 1:1 and 1:2 rhythmic categories. Male and female lemurs’ songs had the same matching rhythms but different tempos. The researchers say they hope that their work could lead to a better understanding of the evolutionary origin of human songs. And the techniques used to map the lemurs’ songs can potentially be used to study rhythmic patterns in other animals. (Science)

• And finally: American technologist Carl Malamud has launched the latest salvo in his effort to free paywalled scientific literature from the grips of the publishing industry. The vocal public domain advocate launched “General Index,” a database comprising snippets of text from more than 100 million journal articles. Because each snippet is no more than five words, Malamud says, the freely available index sidesteps copyright law, even though many of the articles themselves are behind paywalls. Researchers say the new trove could be a boon to scientists who use automated text mining to trawl and analyze academic literature. They say it will essentially allow them to mine the scientific corpus with fewer restrictions than they would encounter with search engines such as Google Scholar. The project has garnered endorsements from major figures in science and technology, including internet pioneer Vinton Cerf. But questions still swirl about its legality. Malamud had to obtain copies of 107 million articles to create the index, and he’s declining to say how he got them. In a statement, publishing giant Springer Nature said they support certain open-research initiatives, but that they “have seen some initiatives run into trouble, however, when the necessary rights have not been secured to enable their sustainability.” (Nature)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Sudhi Oberoi, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

UPDATE: A previous version of this piece referred to Anthony Bellotti as a conservative political strategist. According to the White Coat Waste Project, he no longer consults for political causes or candidates.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.