The Washington Post later reported that Fauci’s office received 3,600 calls in 36 hours, causing his assistant to stop answering the phone for two weeks. The newspaper linked the onslaught to “a campaign by a little-known animal rights group called the White Coat Waste Project.”
The NIAID tried to address the controversy, stating that it didn’t actually fund the Tunisian beagle research paper — which in November 2021 was corrected to remove reference to a grant from the institute, which had been awarded to a researcher at Ohio State University for related work. “NIAID was listed as a courtesy because it had supported other leishmaniasis research in the past,” a spokesperson for the university told BuzzFeed News. But that correction seemed only to give the White Coat Waste Project more ammunition. “Once again…color us unconvinced,” it wrote in a later blog post disputing the NIAID’s denial of funding the work.
The White Coat Waste Project’s critics argue that its demonization of Fauci, seemingly calculated to channel existing right-wing anger with the government scientist seen as the public face of mask and COVID vaccine mandates, has taken animal activism into scary territory.
“They take a tiny sliver of truth, and then around that they build this highly emotional somewhat fictional narrative to build their case,” Jim Newman, director of strategic communications with Americans for Medical Progress, which argues that animal experiments are essential to develop new treatments and vaccines, told BuzzFeed News. Animal activists have long been accused of cherry-picking facts and ignoring the goals of research to present animal experiments in the worst possible light. But portraying individuals as cruel villains in the current febrile political climate is “a very dangerous direction to be headed,” Newman said.
“Of course, the pro-animal experimentation lobby hates that we hold government bosses accountable for funneling tax dollars to cruel and wasteful animal tests,” Goodman said. “We generally don’t run campaigns targeting individual taxpayer-funded animal experimenters to respect their privacy and because we question the approach’s effectiveness, but federal agency bosses are public figures and fair game.”
Threats to Fauci’s life, which began well before the White Coat Waste Project’s BeagleGate campaign, have been widely documented. Daszak, too, has faced security scares, including an incident in August 2020 when an envelope containing a mysterious white powder reportedly turned up at his home. “I get death threats regularly and we get crank calls at home trying to keep us awake at night,” Daszak told BuzzFeed News.
The White Coat Waste Project stresses that it opposes violence and issued a statement in October 2021 saying it had no quarrel with Fauci over his advice on COVID policies. “You could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him on COVID response and go toe-to-toe with him on other issues,” said Goodman, who makes no apology for the group’s decision to make Fauci the focus of the BeagleGate campaign. “Because he became a household name as the pandemic progressed, sure, it created an opportunity to go after him for animal testing in a way that would really make waves.”
As the White Coat Waste Project has seized its opportunities and gained a higher public profile, the group has itself come under scrutiny. In February, the Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, alleging that the White Coat Waste Project had coordinated with the White Coat Waste Political Action Committee, founded in 2017, in breach of regulations prohibiting tax-exempt nonprofits from engaging in political campaign activities.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Bellotti declined to answer questions about the political action committee, which he said was a separate organization. Goodman later sent a statement describing the Campaign for Accountability’s complaint as a “politically-motivated, baseless, and frivolous attack,” noting: “The WCW Project does not fund activities of the distinct, all-volunteer WCW PAC.”
Despite the partisan dynamics that have driven the White Coat Waste Project’s campaign against funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Bellotti told BuzzFeed News that his group’s goal remains finding ways to unite Democrats and Republicans on defunding animal experiments backed by the US government. “We didn’t know when we launched this that it would get partisan in the way it did,” he said.
The White Coat Waste Project’s latest campaign, again tapping into concern about US taxpayer dollars going to the nation’s most powerful adversaries, might just have broader political appeal. Less than a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it published a new blog post: “Breaking: WCW Discovers NIH Pays For Cruel Kitten Experiments…in Russia!” ●