Dr. Anthony Fauci’s senior advisor at the National Institutes of Health Dr. David Morens during a Wednesday hearing denied using a “back channel” to communicate with his former boss and claimed he was making a joke.

Morens allegedly intentionally obstructed the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic’s investigations into the origins of COVID-19 to protect Fauci. Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Chairman Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Ohio, pressed the scientific advisor on his alleged secret channel to speak with Fauci, to which Morens replied that he was joking.

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“On April 21, 2021, you wrote, ‘I can either send stuff to Tony Fauci on his private email or hand it to him at work or at his house,’” Wenstrup said. “Did you ever send information related to COVID-19 to Dr. Fauci’s personal email?”

Morens said he did not recall, but he might have.

Morens sent an email in 2021 to EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, explaining that he tries “to always communicate on gmail because [his] NIH email is FOIA’d constantly,” The Intercept reported.

“On May 13, 2021, you wrote that you connected a reporter to Dr. Fauci via your secret back channel. What back channel did you have for Dr. Fauci?” Wenstrup followed up.

“Well, all these terms like secret back channel and the other one you mentioned were just jokes. Jokes that I made in dealing with Peter because he was under death threats and was very depressed and it was sort of the group of people who were Peter’s friends were trying to cheer him up by making snarky jokes and euphemisms that were not true,” Morens said. “But there was no back channel … The back channel to Tony was the same one that it applies to everybody.”

Wenstrup asked what Morens was referring to.

“Tony does not want me to connect anybody to him directly and with one exception a couple weeks ago, I never did. But the back channel was a regular channel within government where if somebody wanted to talk to Tony, I would tell them we have a regular process here,” Morens said.

Morens allegedly violated NIH policy by deleting emails following public records requests. Daszak allegedly misled the federal government to obtain grants that financed virus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some believe the COVID-19 pandemic originated.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently informed EcoHealth Alliance that the federal government would be suspending current grants to the nonprofit and that it is working to bar it from receiving additional grants. HHS cites a series of mistakes EcoHealth Alliance made, such as problems with the organization’s monitoring of work conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“Dr. David Morens, a senior advisor to Fauci for decades, wrote in an email to Dr. Daszak, ‘I learned from our FOIA lady here how to make emails disappear after I am FOIA’d, but before the search starts. So I think we are all safe. Plus I deleted most of those earlier emails after sending them to Gmail.’ Is that consistent with NIH document retention policies?” Republican House Oversight Chairman James Comer asked at a Thursday hearing, to which NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak answered that it’s not.

Daszak in November 2023 appeared for a transcribed interview, where he described Morens as a “mentor.”

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