Former head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, appointed as President Biden’s new science adviser on February 17, has consistently maintained that he plays a nonpartisan role in the federal government. Collins told NPR, for example, that he and his former employee, Anthony Fauci, are “not political figures,” and expressed frustration over criticism directed toward them as being driven by “a very strong political overtone.” Their COVID policy recommendations, he insists by contrast, have been based solely on scientific data.
But a leaked audio recording obtained by The Daily Wire calls Collins’ claims of political neutrality into question.
During a private October 26 event at the University of Chicago, the physician wandered far afield of medical opinion, offering legal arguments for federal vaccine mandates and maintaining that the threat of job loss should be used to pressure citizens into getting the shots. He also took aim at former President Trump over COVID deaths that occurred early in the pandemic and admitted to greenlighting controversial research that relied on organs harvested from aborted infants.
‘My Employer Made Me Do It’
The event, which included an interview portion along with a question-and-answer session, was hosted by Christianity Today theologian Russell Moore on behalf of the Institute of Politics, an organization founded by senior Obama adviser, David Axelrod. It began with Moore introducing Collins — a personal friend and member of his book club — to a select group of students Moore described as “future elected officials, diplomats, [and] economists.”
Moore said he invited Collins to explain the efforts they have made “separately and together to deal with evangelical resistance to the vaccine with COVID and some of the controversies we’ve had over masking and government mandates.”
Though in January the Supreme Court struck down emergency Labor Department regulations that would have forced private businesses with 100 or more employees to require vaccinations, the mandates for health care workers and federal contractors still stand. According to a February 2 report from Forbes, the White House believes that a broader federal mandate is still on the table.
Six months before the Chicago event, in a separate interview with Moore who was then head of the public policy arm of the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., Collins had assured evangelical audiences that there would not be “any mandating vaccines from the U.S. government.” However, by early September, Biden had shifted toward an aggressive pursuit of coerced vaccination under threat of unemployment. And Collins made it clear to Axelrod’s students that his views, too, had shifted in support of the new agenda.
Speaking from a legal rather than medical standpoint, Collins responded to a question regarding the wisdom of federal vaccine mandates by pointing to the 1905 Supreme Court case, Jacobson vs. Massachusetts, that dealt with the much-more deadly small-pox virus.
In a summary for the American Enterprise Institute, legal scholar Sean Trende called the ruling a “previously obscure 116-year-old precedent [that] barely warrants a footnote in most constitutional law treatises.” But he noted that non-experts have taken to citing it “whenever anyone questions the legality or constitutionality of vaccine mandates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Collins referenced it in just this fashion at the Institute of Politics engagement, telling the students that because of Jacobsen, “There’s no question in my mind that the mandates are legal.”
He then argued that intimidation tactics should be used to motivate the resistant to take the vaccine.
“The US government does have the authority to mandate vaccinations if there is an outbreak that is threatening people, because it’s not just about you, it’s about the people you’re going to infect,” Collins claimed, even though science journals were already reporting by that point that vaccinated people were just as likely to spread the then-dominant Delta variant as those who were unvaccinated.
Collins went on to ask rhetorically, “Do [mandates] convince people who otherwise wouldn’t get them?” He answered himself, “Oh yeah, especially if it means losing your job.”
As evidence, he described how successful the threat of unemployment was at persuading vaccine-hesitant NIH employees and contractors to get vaccinated. When Collins made it clear to the 2,000 out of 46,000 workers who had still declined to take the jabs that they were “in serious danger of being fired in the next month if they [didn’t] do something about it,” Collins said he got a “big response.”
“Reality [was] sinking in,” he explained, so that even the “pretty darn resistant” elected to get vaccinated. He then chuckled, “You get the feeling that their resistance was not maybe quite that deeply seated,” and he speculated that deep down, many unvaccinated people may actually want to get the vaccine but resist doing so out of peer pressure. “They’re sort of thinking to themselves, you know, maybe I really should do it, but if I do, I lose my credibility with my peeps,” Collins said.
Mandates, he argued, can give such individuals a way to save face because they can tell their social circle, “’Well, my employer made me do it. I didn’t really want to get them.’ They get, you know, bonus points, because they’re now a victim. But they’ve also gotten the mandated vaccine that they kind of wanted anyway.”
Collins said evangelicals, in particular, over-emphasize notions of personal liberty when it comes to mandates, saying they have so “wrapped themselves in the flag and wrapped themselves in this concept of personal freedom, that public health just grates on them.”
“[Evangelicals] have forgotten many times that freedom is not just about rights,” Collins contended. He then employed a mocking caricature of a Southern accent, asking the students, “How many times have you heard, ‘Muh freedom means I got rights’? Well, okay, you also have that other R-word: responsibilities. That’s what freedom is supposed to incorporate.”
Both Collins and Moore noted that they were enjoying the opportunity to speak freely because the event was not being formally recorded.
‘A Devil’s Bargain’
Arguably the most politically pointed portion of Collins’ remarks came when Moore asked him about the political opinions of his fellow Christians. Collins answered by referencing an Atlantic article by anti-Trump pundit Peter Wehner, another member of his and Moore’s book club, that argued evangelicals have “embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics” and that “churches [have] become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized.”
Building on this theme, Collins claimed that the Trump administration uniquely violated norms of separation of church and state in reaching out to white, Protestant voters. “[Separation of church and state] all got pretty muddy under the Trump administration. There was clearly a heavy effort to try to build political alliances with particularly white evangelicals. And it worked,” Collins said.
In fact, former Presidents Obama and Bush both had more extensive records of relying on faith-based initiatives to support their agendas, while Trump erected new barriers to state interference with religious organizations.
Then, contra his public claims of political neutrality, Collins went on to disparage Trump personally, stating that “every aspect of that President’s character seems to be the opposite of what evangelical Christians would admire.”
As The Daily Wire previously reported, Collins has played a critical role in appealing to evangelical Christians to comply with federal COVID policies due to his relationships with prominent Protestant leaders and his self-identification as an evangelical himself. Nevertheless, at the University of Chicago event, Collins called evangelicals’ overwhelming support of Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections “divisive,” and a “devil’s bargain” that did “great damage to the credibility of the church.”
At one point, Moore brought up Collins’ work with Anthony Fauci, asking how they have “somehow ended up the controversial figures.” Collins did not mention leaked emails that showed the two colluded to suppress medical viewpoints they disapproved of or their ongoing push of COVID restrictions or the underwhelming success of the vaccines at stopping the spread of the virus. Instead, he replied that their increasing unpopularity is a result of the former President shifting blame in an attempt to deflect from the massive loss of life Trump ostensibly caused in the early stages of the pandemic.
“Great harm was done to the people in this nation by a very, very self-involved and misguided president in the previous administration. Hundreds of thousands of people have died who should not have had to do so,” Collins told the students, adding, “And so there was an effort to try to distract from that dreadful circumstance by finding somebody else to blame.”
In truth, as of December 18, 2021, more Americans have died from COVID-19 under President Biden’s administration than under Trump’s, despite the fact Biden inherited multiple vaccines and other federal infrastructure to help mitigate the spread of the virus. In August 2020, near the end of Trump’s tenure in office, the U.S. boasted an excellent case-fatality ratio in comparison to other countries, ranking twenty-fourth for the percentage of deaths arising from COVID cases.
Yet The Daily Wire was unable to find any reported instances of Collins criticizing Biden’s handling of the pandemic or placing any blame on him for COVID deaths that have occurred during his presidency.
The Horns of the Dilemma
Evangelical leaders like Moore have been under fire since The Daily Wire detailed their praise and promotion of Collins despite his record of funding controversial transgender research on minors and experimentation on organs collected from aborted infants. Pundits like conservative talk show host Erick Erickson questioned whether Collins had knowledge of such projects, given the vastness of the NIH.
The University of Chicago event suggests that Collins was not only aware of such funding, but personally greenlighted some of it, and that Moore, at least, had previous knowledge of his friend’s professional history.
When one of the students asked Collins about the NIH funding experiments such as University of Pittsburgh studies that involved harvesting body parts from full term babies and grafting infant scalps onto lab rats, Collins did not deny knowing about or greenlighting such projects. He also did not say that he opposes abortion. Instead, he said that he is “troubled” by abortion and made a case for the morality and efficacy of research based on aborted tissue.
“After all,” he said, “pregnancy termination is, at the present time, legal in the United States. Whether you’re in support of it or not, it’s happened … The material from those elective abortions is discarded. There are aspects of fetal tissue that can be extremely valuable in understanding how life works, how development happens, and how to treat certain diseases like Parkinson’s disease, for instance.”
Collins then continued to press the argument that research derived from fetal tissue can be ethical.
“Fetal tissue is being discarded in large quantities every day,” he said, “If there were a circumstance where, with consent of the mother, having been obtained after the abortion, not in any way as an inspiration to carry it forward, the abortion…could ultimately help somebody. Which of those two choices is more ethical — discard all the tissue or use a small part? … Can you in fact, in some circumstances, even with actions that you consider immoral, derive something from it that might actually be moral and beneficial? That’s the horns of the dilemma upon which I have been resting here for these 12 years as NIH Director, trying to oversee human fetal tissue research, which is something that I have to make decisions about.”
For his part, Moore gave no indication that he was not aware of Collins’ background and views that diverge sharply from those of most pro-life activists and the mainstream evangelical Christians who make up Moore’s primary following. Instead, Moore told the student, “I don’t have to agree with every Christian on everything in order to see the fruit of the Spirit in that person … Nonetheless, I can respect him as a Christian.”
I reached out to both Moore and Collins for comment on the leaked audio. Moore’s assistant said he would not be able to comment due to scheduling commitments, while Collins did not respond.
Along with his new role as one of Biden’s top science advisers, Collins is also now co-chairman of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a group the New York Times describes as “high-powered [experts] in fields as diverse as agriculture, biochemistry, ecology and nanotechnology. The President created the council in September to advise the White House on how to handle future pandemics, climate change and other global challenges.”