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Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek June 28, 2024

No, the Gates Foundation didn’t fund research to make the ‘bird flu transmissible to humans’

If Your Time is short

  • In 2009, the Gates Foundation awarded a five-year $9.5 million research grant to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The university said the grant was set to fund efforts to identify virus mutations that could help identify influenza threats to humans.

  • Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have been the target of false online claims for years, and this claim was first shared by websites and social media accounts that have spread misinformation.

A headline shared June 18 on Instagram made an alarming connection between the Gates Foundation and bird flu.

"BIOTERRORISM: Gates Foundation awarded $9.5 million to UW-Madison to make H5N1 bird flu transmissible to humans," read a screenshot that also featured a photo of wealthy philanthropist Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp.’s co-founder.

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

(Screenshot from Instagram.)

The headline distorts what happened with a project from 15 years ago and invokes fear about the current outbreak of U.S. bird flu cases involving poultry and dairy cows. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted four human cases of bird flu since 2022.

In 2009, the Gates Foundation awarded a $9.5 million grant to University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. The grant funded efforts to identify virus mutations that could help identify influenza threats to humans, the university said in a news release

The money wasn’t aimed at making the H5N1 avian influenza transmissible to humans, said Will Cushman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison spokesperson. 

H5N1, or bird flu, rarely spreads person to person. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at University of California, Davis Health said in April most humans who’ve been infected with avian flu were traced to close contact with infected animals. 

Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have been the target of false online claims for years. This claim was first shared by websites and social media accounts that have spread health misinformation. 

The claim’s origins

The screenshot shared on Instagram didn’t show the article’s source, but the headline, author and June 17 publication date trace back to an article in Natural News, a website that NBC News ranked as one of the worst spreaders of online health misinformation in 2019. In 2020, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit focused on tracking online extremism, called Natural News a "disinformation empire." PolitiFact has repeatedly fact-checked the site’s false claims. 

Natural News’ June 17 article cited a June 8 X post from the McCullough Foundation, led by Dr. Peter McCullough, a Texas-based cardiologist who has promoted unproven COVID-19 treatments.

The McCullough Foundation’s post claimed the Gates Foundation funded research "to modify H5N1 viruses to preferentially recognize human-type receptors and transmit efficiently in mammals." 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison news release from November 2009, also referred to in McCullough’s post, explained the grant award this way:

"The University of Wisconsin–Madison has received a five-year, $9.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify virus mutations that would serve as early warnings of potential pandemic influenza viruses."

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the university who led the project, said he planned to research viral protein mutations that allow bird flu viruses to bond to human receptors or enable efficient replication in human cells, according to the press release.

Kawaoka said in the news release that he was pursuing a more reliable way to earlier recognize the "pandemic potential" of an emerging influenza virus. There was no indication that the Gates Foundation’s grant would be used to intentionally make a virus "transmissible to humans." 

The research "sought to understand how avian influenza circulating in nature might develop mutations that could allow it to spread between mammals," Cushman said. "This could help with the development of an early warning system in which scientists would be able to monitor wildly circulating avian influenza for concerning mutations." 

An early warning system could be used to develop vaccines and other public health interventions aimed at viruses with the concerning mutations, Cushman said.

Using some of the grant money, Kawaoka conducted research that involved an H5N1 virus adapted to infect ferrets that was airborne transmissible among ferrets. In the study, the researchers examined how certain mutations appeared to affect the transmissibility of the virus. 

Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist who studies biosecurity and biosafety, told PolitiFact it wasn’t accurate to characterize the study as intending to make H5N1 transmissible to humans. 

She said "it was not clear this bird flu was capable of becoming a problem for mammals including humans," and researchers wanted to surface specific genetic markers to monitor as the virus evolved.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity later reviewed Kawaoka’s research and another study by a different group of researchers because there were fears that mutations might make the virus more transmissible among humans. 

Ultimately, the advisory board allowed the research to be published, though some of the specific information about the viral mutations was redacted to keep it from people who might intend to do harm, the National Institutes of Health said in a 2011 press release. The agency added that it was working to establish a protocol that would grant some people "with a legitimate need in order to achieve important public health goals"  secure access to the mutation information.

The Gates grant money also funded two H5N1 studies in 2012 and 2015

Gronvall said that research such as Kawaoka’s could create a virus that is more transmissible to humans. But she said this type of research has many biosafety controls to ensure that researchers do not get infected or spread disease.

"Researchers create mutated viruses so that they can understand what all the parts of the virus do," she said. "Yes, that information could be misused. But it’s important to remember that nature has a huge lab and we are not prepared for what comes out of it — that’s why researchers want to figure these things out."

The grant helped produce findings that have "been used to monitor avian influenza viruses circulating in nature," Cushman said. 

Despite some concerns sparked by the research, we found no evidence that University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers planned to use a Gates Foundation grant to create an H5N1 virus transmissible to humans, nor that researchers successfully did so. 

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, June 18, 2024

Emailed statement from Will Cushman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison spokesperson, June 21, 2024

Email interview with Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an associate professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, June 26, 2024

Natural News, BIOTERRORISM: Gates Foundation awarded $9.5 million to UW-Madison to make H5N1 bird flu transmissible to humans, June 17, 2024

NBC News, Social media hosted a lot of fake health news this year. Here's what went most viral, Dec. 29, 2019

Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Anatomy of a Disinformation Empire: Investigating NaturalNews, June 2020

University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Madison receives $9.5 million Gates Foundation grant, Nov. 19, 2009

McCullough Foundation’s post on X, June 8, 2024

MedScape, Baylor Gets Restraining Order Against COVID Vaccine Skeptic Doc, Sept. 16, 2021

ABC News, Group of physicians combats misinformation as unproven COVID-19 treatments continue to be prescribed, March 4, 2022

AFP Fact Check, US cardiologist makes false claims about Covid-19 vaccination, April 26, 2021

Nature, Pause on avian flu transmission studies, Jan. 20, 2012

Nature, Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets, May 2, 2012

National Institutes of Health, Press Statement on the NSABB Review of H5N1 Research, Dec. 20, 2011

PubMed Central, Ferretting out the facts behind the H5N1 controversy, May 2012 

The Associated Press, Melinda French Gates resigns as Gates Foundation co-chair, 3 years after her divorce from Bill Gates, May 13, 2024

UC Davis Health, Q&A: What you need to know about bird flu in humans, April 1, 2024

Yale Medicine, H5N1 Bird Flu: What You Need to Know, June 17, 2024

National Library of Medicine, The potential for respiratory droplet-transmissible A/H5N1 influenza virus to evolve in a mammalian host, June 22, 2012

National Library of Medicine, Identification of mammalian-adapting mutations in the polymerase complex of an avian H5N1 influenza virus, June 17, 2015

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, H5N1 Bird Flu: Current Situation, June 24, 2024

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No, the Gates Foundation didn’t fund research to make the ‘bird flu transmissible to humans’

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