Daily Fact-Check: Conservative Posts Misrepresent Royalty Payments to Fauci and Collins
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In August, Open The Books, a self-described government watchdog organization, published hundreds of new documents it obtained from the National Institutes of Health via Freedom of Information Act requests enforced through a court order. The records show that the NIH and many of its current and former employees received over $325 million in royalty payments from September 2009 to September 2021.
The royalties are for scientific research and other innovations by NIH institutes and centers that were licensed for use by third parties, such as pharmaceutical companies. Some of the money goes back into research, but a portion is shared with the government workers who invented the patented or licensed technology.
Open The Books said that among the NIH inventors who received royalty payments over that 12-year period were Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH’s former director, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Collins received 21 payments and Fauci received 37 between 2010 and 2021.
But the group’s reporting has been misused as the basis for a false claim that all of those royalties paid to the NIH, Collins and Fauci were connected to COVID-19 and the vaccines that were created to combat the disease.
“Records Reveal Fauci, Others Made Over $300 Million From the Covid Pandemic While Americans Suffered,” reads the headline of an Aug. 13 story by Townhall.com, a conservative news and commentary website. The story, which the website shared on Facebook, went on to say, “The records show Collins and Fauci got 58 royalty payments for allowing companies to use their COVID-19 vaccines, which in return was developed with funding from U.S. taxpayers by private pharmaceutical firms.”
“Just in case anyone still has a shrine to Dr. Fauci, with one of his bobblehead dolls in it, maybe this will open your eyes,” Huckabee began. “The watchdog group Open The Books just released about 1,500 unredacted pandemic era records showing that the leaders of the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, including Dr. Fauci, already the highest paid public servant in D.C., made over $325 million in profits off of COVID-19.”
Then Huckabee made the exact same claim as Townhall.com about Fauci and Collins getting “58 royalty payments” for the COVID-19 vaccines.
But, as we said, that is not what the records published by Open The Books show.
Most Payments Predate the Pandemic
In an email to FactCheck.org, Christopher Neefus, the nonprofit’s communications director, said his organization did “not make any claims” about the payments being linked to the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We have been clear from the beginning that this was a request for all royalties paid by third parties back to NIH and its scientists,” Neefus wrote. “[I]t’s certainly not all COVID related – that’s evident from the fact that the payments go back a decade here.”
He indicated that Open The Books did not try to determine how much of the money was related to COVID-19 vaccines or treatments. That would require additional research, he said.
While the records NIH turned over show the corresponding number for the product that was licensed and the licensee, there is no explanation of what the licensed product was or how the product was used. The agency also redacted the dollar amount of the royalties paid to each individual.
We asked NIH for more information about the licenses, but we have not received a response.
Of the nearly 57,000 payments documented by Open The Books, almost 48,000 of them were made on or prior to Dec. 5, 2019. That was before China reported the first cases of people infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on Dec. 31.
Furthermore, only three of the 58 payments to Collins and Fauci were made in 2020 or 2021.
One payment to Fauci was made on Jan. 28, 2020, about a month and a half before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. The other payments to Collins and Fauci were made on Feb. 11, 2021, and April 28, 2021, respectively.
The payment to Collins was made by the Progeria Research Foundation, a nonprofit trying to find a cure for Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes rapid aging in children.
Fauci’s payments came from Santa Cruz Biotechnology, a company that develops products for biomedical research. Santa Cruz Biotechnology made 13 other payments to Fauci from 2010 to 2019.
When the Associated Press wrote in 2005 about previous royalties paid to Fauci, and how the payments raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest, Fauci said he planned to donate all royalties that he receives to charity. He told the AP that he tried to refuse the royalties, but was told that he was legally obligated to accept the money.
NIH told us for a 2022 story that it does not track how employees spend their royalties, which are considered personal income. So, we are not able to confirm whether Fauci donated his past royalty payments as he said.
In its report, Open The Books said Fauci “never provided proof” that he donated his royalties. But the Townhall.com article falsely claimed that the NIH records showed Fauci “failed to donate his royalties to charity as promised” – which is not what the Open The Books report said.
Royalties for the COVID-19 Vaccines
It is true that the government has been compensated for its contributions to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.
In February, the New York Times reported that Moderna paid royalties to NIH and two American universities in December for Moderna’s licensing of a spike-protein technique used in its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
Moderna financial reports described it as “catch-up royalty payment of $400 million to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,” which is one of the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers. But the Times said the payment would be split between NIH, Dartmouth College and the Scripps Research Institute, whose researchers patented the method used by Moderna.
“The individual scientists who helped invent the technique are also likely to receive a portion of the payment, experts said,” according to the Times.
The newspaper noted that, by the end of 2021, seven other pharmaceutical companies, including BioNTech, had agreed to pay those same three institutions for using the same technique in their COVID-19 vaccines.
As part of its licensing agreement, Moderna said NIAID also will receive “low single-digit royalties on future net sales” of Moderna’s vaccines, which brought in over $36 billion in revenue from 2020 to 2022.
Still, the documents secured by Open The Books do not show Fauci and Collins getting “58 royalty payments” for the COVID-19 vaccines, as was wrongly claimed in the Townhall.com article and in Huckabee’s Instagram post.
And it is not clear if Fauci or Collins financially benefited from any COVID-19-related royalties that were paid after September 2021, which is the last month covered in the records NIH released.
“NIH Secret Third-Party Royalty Database Uncovered.” OpenTheBooks.com. 11 Aug 2023.
Andrzejewski, Adam. “Anthony Fauci Defended NIH Culture Of Secrecy: The $325M Third-Party Royalty Complex… Now We Know More Details.” OpenTheBooks.com. 9 Aug 2023.
Arnold, Sarah. “Records Reveal Fauci, Others Made Over $300 Million From the Covid Pandemic While Americans Suffered.” Townhall.com. 13 Aug 2023.
Neefus, Christopher, director of communications for Open The Books. Email sent to FactCheck.org. 21 Aug 2023.
Solomon, John. “AP Exclusive: Federal researchers haven’t told patients about financial interest in experiments.” Associated Press via NBCNews.com. 10 Jan 2005.
Gore, D’Angelo. “Some Posts About NIH Royalties Omit Fauci Statement That He Donates His Payments.” FactCheck.org. 20 May 2022.
Gore, D’Angelo and Catalina Jaramillo. “Q&A on Financial Disclosures by Government Scientists.” FactCheck.org. 11 Jul 2022.
Mueller, Benjamin. “After Long Delay, Moderna Pays N.I.H. for Covid Vaccine Technique.” New York Times. 23 Feb 2023.
Moderna. “Moderna Reports Fourth Quarter and Fiscal Year 2022 Financial Results and Provides Business Updates.” 23 Feb 2023.
Moderna. “Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2022.” Form 10-K. U.S Securities and Exchange Commission. 23 Feb 2023.