‘Low-Hanging Fruit’: Experts Criticize Senator Marco Rubio’s Letter Questioning Harvard’s Ties to China

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) alleged without direct evidence that Harvard officials may have helped suppress some theories regarding the origins of Covid-19 in a “quid pro quo” effort to advance Chinese state interests in a June 16 letter addressed to University President Lawrence S. Bacow.
By Isabella B. Cho

Massachusetts Hall is home to the Harvard University president's office.
Massachusetts Hall is home to the Harvard University president's office. By Julian J. Giordano

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) alleged without direct evidence that Harvard officials may have helped suppress some theories regarding the origins of Covid-19 in a “quid pro quo” effort to advance Chinese state interests in a June 16 letter addressed to University President Lawrence S. Bacow.

The unsubstantiated allegations in the letter — which have drawn criticism from U.S.-China scholars — center around a donation that the Chinese real estate conglomerate Evergrande Group pledged to Harvard Medical School in early 2020.

The $115 million pledge helped establish a research collaboration between American and Chinese scientists in February 2020. But Evergrande later reneged on its pledge after contributing only $12 million, according to a January report in the Boston Globe.

In the letter, Rubio wrote that top Harvard leaders including Bacow, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, and Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 helped foster “what would become a concerning relationship” between Fauci and Evergrande. He cited communications between Daley and Fauci that were made public by a Freedom of Information Act request, but did not identify any direct contact between Fauci and the company.

“The coincidental timing of these events suggests the possibility of a quid pro quo, whereby Harvard officials, in return for a large donation from Evergrande, contacted American public health officials to convince them that Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) preferred theory of the origin of COVID-19 was the only theory that should be seriously considered,” he wrote.

The email exchanges between Fauci and Daley, made public via a FOIA request from BuzzFeed News, showed that Daley informed Fauci of a meeting he and Garber had with top Evergrande officials to discuss the collaboration between experts at Harvard and in China.

In an email to Fauci on Feb. 2, 2020, Daley wrote that Evergrande officials said they “were acting on behalf of Dr Zhong Nanshan, China’s key point person on the coronavirus outbreak” and he asked Fauci for information about other collaborations with Chinese scientists. Zhong helped lead China’s response to Covid-19 and the SARS epidemic in 2003.

“While I have been mobilizing efforts of our community to react to the virus and to this request, I am not naive to the challenging politics of such a relationship,” Daley wrote. “I do not want to complicate or duplicate efforts already underway, and am writing to request whatever information you are willing to share on your current efforts to coordinate a response.”

Daley also forwarded Fauci an email he received from Jack Y. Liu, Evergrande’s chief health officer, but the text of the note was almost entirely redacted.

In a response later that day, Fauci wrote that there “is a lot of communications between scientists in China and their colleagues in the USA, many with whom they have been collaborating prior to the outbreak,” adding: “There is no real ‘coordination’ of this response since we do not know who is doing what until we are told – just like you have done here.” He connected Daley with a World Health Organization official tasked with organizing a meeting about international collaboration on Covid-19 research later in the month.

Of the more than 3,200 pages of communications made available via the FOIA request, only one email thread involves a discussion between Daley and Fauci about Evergrande. The communications made public include no direct contact between Fauci and Evergrande.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain confirmed that Harvard received the letter, but declined to comment further.

A Harvard Medical School spokesperson said Daley was unavailable for an interview due to travel. Evergrande did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘Political Bait’

Rubio, citing his position as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, requested a “prompt response” from Bacow to questions about the University’s communications with Evergrande and its allocation of funds from the donation.

In the letter, Rubio suggests the Chinese government may have used Evergrande, a private company, as a means to politically influence U.S. actors.

“The CCP’s outreach to Harvard through Evergrande is consistent with the CCP’s past attempts to influence decision-making in other countries, including the United States, through non-traditional means as well as influential actors in the private sector and civil society,” he wrote. “While Evergrande is ostensibly a private company, the laws of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) make it clear that all companies are required to comply with CCP directives.”

In recent years, China President Xi Jinping has taken a more interventionist approach to private firms. In September 2020, the CCP issued a new set of guidelines for private companies to encourage them to align with state values.

Some China scholars objected to Rubio’s claims about the nature of private Chinese firms’ relationships with the state government. Harvard Business School associate professor Meg E. Rithmire said Evergrande’s history with the Chinese government is one defined more by conflict than by collaboration.

“I really see the relationship between Evergrande and the Chinese state as much more antagonistic than Evergrande being an agent of the Chinese government,” said Rithmire. “What frustrated me in reading Senator Rubio’s letter was the contortion of the way in which national security communities are thinking about one aspect of relationships with Chinese firms, and then the logical leap to assume that because a Chinese firm engaged in some sort of philanthropic action with the University, that there’s a quid pro quo for something the Chinese government wanted it to do.”

Rithmire added that arguments such as the one advanced by Rubio in his letter can lead to misunderstandings about private Chinese actors.

“That’s exactly the kind of reasoning that is pushing a lot of people to making errors in understanding how China works — because they’re assuming that everything a Chinese firm does is something the Chinese government wants it to do,” she said.

Evergrande’s $115 million pledge to Harvard Medical School and the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Disease helped establish the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, a collective of more than 800 researchers aiming to address challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and bolster preparedness for future public health crises. Helmed by the Harvard Medical School, MassCPR connects 17 institutions in the greater Boston area to advance research in areas including enhanced diagnostic testing, epidemiological modeling, and therapy development.

The company reneged on its pledge amid financial turmoil after making only one installment, according to the January report in the Globe.

Lawrence O. Gostin, the director of Georgetown University Law School’s O’Neil Institute for National and Global Health Law, said Harvard’s collaboration with Chinese scholars “isn’t unique.”

“Harvard, like most US research institutions have scientific collaborations with Chinese scholars,” he wrote in an email. “Can that sometimes be abused? Of course. But it is absolutely essential to have that kind of scientific collaboration especially in the area of infectious diseases.”

“Overall, Senator Rubio is simply using Harvard as political bait,” Gostin added.

In the letter, Rubio requested a “full accounting” of Harvard’s use of the first $12 million received from the Evergrande donation.

Former Harvard assistant professor of Epidemiology Michael Mina, who said he was “intimately involved” in reviewing proposals for how the money might be used, said the research funded by the donation had the potential to benefit many countries around the world — including China — as they worked to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I don’t see that this was an attempt to cover anything up,” he said. “I think that this was an attempt for a massive Chinese conglomerate to try to accelerate research that could potentially help China and other countries — but importantly, China — get out of this mess that all of a sudden the world faced.”

Mina added that the money is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the amount the U.S. government poured into Covid-19 research.

Thomas A. Hollihan, who chairs the executive committee of the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute, called Rubio’s scrutiny of Harvard “low hanging fruit” as a political talking point.

“In Rubio’s case, of course, he’s clearly trying to position himself for 2024 — and he’s slipped behind even Ron DeSantis, the governor of his home state,” he said. “So he’s got to find issues that are going to attract attention and get media play. And it’s easy to make anti-China rhetoric.”

A ‘Loose’ Claim

In the letter, Rubio suggested, without direct evidence, that in return for a large donation from Evergrande, Harvard may have engaged in a “quid pro quo” exchange — in which school officials would have contacted public health experts to urge them to only seriously consider the Chinese government’s “preferred theory” regarding the origin of Covid-19.

Hollihan called the senator’s claims that Evergrande had a role in concealing the origins of the coronavirus “loose.”

“It’s really loose, making a connection to argue that any single big company is going to have played a role in any of this,” he said. “He’s trying to shape a broader public discussion about U.S.-China relations, because we’re at a moment in time where a ‘get tough’ position on China has strong appeal — it has appeal across both political parties.”

A spokesperson for Rubio declined to comment.

Most experts agree that there is not enough existing evidence to definitively identify the origins of Covid-19. Fauci, who is now President Biden’s top medical advisor, has said it most likely originated from an animal species. Some GOP lawmakers have accused him of seeking to suppress alternative theories about the origins of the virus — a claim he rejects.

Some recent papers have supported the spillover theory, which posits that the virus originally flowed to humans from animal contact, and traced the outbreak to a market in Wuhan where live animals were sold.

Stanford professor of Microbiology and Immunology David A. Relman, who noted that these studies are still under peer review, said he is hesitant to embrace their findings at this point.

“We don’t have all the records. They haven’t shared the information that would allow, at least me, to judge the veracity and the provenance of the information,” he said. “So I’ve been a little bit hesitant to embrace the findings such as they’ve been presented, simply because it just seems premature and somewhat incomplete.”

Both Relman and Yale public health professor Albert I. Ko said other possibilities for the origin of the virus, including its emergence from a lab, cannot be definitively ruled out.

“I don’t think at this point, we can definitively exclude alternative hypotheses, even though it’s most likely that that spillover event happened in Wuhan,” Ko said.

Rubio’s letter comes a week after the World Health Organization’s Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens issued a preliminary report saying it lacks scientific evidence to definitively rule out any theories regarding the origin of the virus at this time.

In its preliminary report, the team of international scientists convened by WHO recommended future investigations to ascertain the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2, noting that current evidence suggests the virus evolved in animals and jumped to humans.

“There are all kinds of reasons to be concerned about China, but to make claims that are essentially not sustained by facts is to distort, rather than to clarify, what’s happening,” Hollihan said of Rubio’s letter.

Correction: June 27, 2022

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness is a collective of more than 80 researchers. In fact, it is a group of more than 800 collaborators.

Clarification: June 27, 2022

This article has been updated to clarify that Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 was unavailable for an interview for this story.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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