Fauci grilled by lawmakers on masks, vaccine mandates and lab leak theory

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the former government scientist celebrated and scorned for his work on Covid, forcefully denied Republican charges Monday that he helped fund the research that sparked the pandemic or hid the possibility that it had originated in a laboratory, calling the allegations “absolutely false and simply absurd.”

In an occasionally testy appearance before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, Dr. Fauci read aloud a February 2020 email urging a prominent scientist who was then suspicious about a leak from the lab “to determine whether his concerns are validated” and if so, report them “very quickly” to the FBI

“It is inconceivable that anyone reading this email would conclude that I was trying to hide the possibility of a lab leak,” Dr. Fauci testified.

Monday's session was the culmination of a 15-month inquiry billed as an investigation into the origins of the pandemic but which recently morphed into a referendum on Dr. Fauci, an 83-year-old immunologist who has spent more than half century as a government scientist and became the public face of the pandemic response under two presidents.

Democrats have painted Dr. Fauci as an American hero, with Rep. Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, denigrating the Republican-led investigation as “a witch hunt.” Republicans have blamed him for school closures, mask ordinances and other “invasive” policies. One, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, railed at Dr. Fauci, saying, “Your place is in prison.”

The Republican-led subcommittee is the only congressional panel tasked with assessing the origins of the worst pandemic in a century and the failures of American policy that made it so devastating. Dr. Fauci, the panel's prized prize, has been at the center of a Covid response that has left the country with far more deaths than many other wealthy nations.

Monday's hearing occasionally touched on the country's vulnerability to the pandemic. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Republican of Ohio, chairman of the committee, complained about the haphazard way the rules were enforced and lamented that public health officials weren't more honest “about what we didn't know ”. Republicans have raised questions about, among other things, masking policies — a liability for Dr. Fauci, who downplayed the effectiveness of masks for the general public in the early days of the pandemic before later changing his tune.

At one point, Ms. Taylor Greene held up a photograph of an unmasked Dr. Fauci at a Washington Nationals baseball game, while complaining that masked children had been “muzzled in their schools.”

But the House committee rarely addressed the evidence surrounding the origins of the coronavirus, or responsibility for its brutal toll in the United States. Lawmakers never pressed Dr. Fauci for his assurances in early 2020 that Americans need not worry about the virus, which was then sweeping across the world. Occasionally the hearing strayed far from the pandemic, as when Ms. Taylor Greene waved a photograph of some beagles and hammered Dr. Fauci on the use of dogs in federally funded experiments. She later criticized him for “repugnant evil science.”

And despite all the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and more than 100 hours of closed-door testimony reviewed by the committee, lawmakers produced nothing on Monday linking Dr. Fauci to the start of the Covid outbreak in China, a accusation that has been going on for a long time. made him a villain for supporters of the so-called laboratory leak theory.

On Monday, Representative Raul Ruiz of California, the committee's ranking Democrat, seized on this paucity of evidence. “They came up empty-handed for evidence of their extreme allegations,” he said. At the end of the hearing, when asked what he had learned, Mr. Ruiz responded flatly: “Nothing.”

Dr Fauci has long faced suspicions over grants that the medical research agency he once led contributed to the EcoHealth Alliance, an American non-profit virus-hunting group. As part of efforts to get ahead of epidemics, the grants called for EcoHealth to transfer some of its funding to scientific collaborators abroad, including a coronavirus lab in Wuhan, China, the city where the pandemic began.

But the coronaviruses studied in the American-funded Wuhan lab, as well as other similar viruses known to be researched there, bore little resemblance to the one that sparked the pandemic.

Dr Fauci said on Monday that it was “molecularly impossible” that taxpayer-funded experiments in Wuhan had produced the virus causing the pandemic. “It's just a virological thing,” Dr. Fauci said, while acknowledging that he didn't know whether the unreported experiments in China focused on more closely related viruses.

Dr. Fauci said, as he had previously, that he had kept an open mind about the origins of the pandemic, but that some theories about the lab data leaks were conspiratorial. In closed-door testimony, Dr. Fauci told the jury that in his view, the weight of the evidence indicated that the virus originated in animals before spreading to humans outside a laboratory.

He pointed to studies based on early cases and viral genomes as well as samples at an illegal wildlife market in Wuhan that suggested the virus causing the pandemic had jumped from animals to people.

Digging through emails, Slack messages and research proposals, the team discovered messages suggesting that Dr. Fauci's former aides had tried to evade public records laws at the medical research agency he ran for 38 years until his retirement in December 2022.

Some emails suggested that agency officials tasked with producing documents under transparency laws were helping colleagues evade those regulations, a possibility that one government accountability expert called “extremely troubling.”

The emails suggested that agency officials were concerned not about emerging evidence regarding the origins of the pandemic, but rather about the release of memos in which they bluntly discussed “political attacks” on their research.

However, some of those emails painted Dr. Fauci as a man concerned about his public image. Others suggested that Dr. Fauci also avoided placing sensitive comments in places where the public could possibly find them.

“I can send material to Tony on his private Gmail or deliver it to him at work or at his home,” Dr. David Morens, a senior advisor, wrote of Dr. Fauci reassuring scientists in April 2021 that they need not worry about public records requests – an email that Republican lawmakers repeatedly highlighted Monday.

Dr. Fauci denied ever using his personal email to conduct business with the agency and criticized Dr. Morens for his handling of public records and dealings with EcoHealth leaders.

“It was a terrible thing,” Dr. Fauci said. “He was wrong and inappropriate.”

Social distancing rules became another point of contention during the hearing. In closed-door testimony in January, Dr. Fauci told the House committee that the six-foot social distancing rule “just appeared.” He said Monday he was referring to the absence of controlled studies on optimal distance, which he said would not have been possible before the rule was implemented.

“These were important when we were trying to stop the tsunami of death early on,” Dr. Fauci said as Republican lawmakers pressed him on this and other Covid restrictions. “How long you kept them going is debatable.”

Monday's hearing was as theatrical as it was substantive. Two members of the public were ejected after claiming that Dr. Fauci belonged in prison. Ms. Taylor Greene wreaked havoc within the subcommittee and was reprimanded by Mr. Wenstrup after repeatedly referring to Dr. Fauci as “Mr.” instead of “Dr.”

Another Republican lawmaker played a recording of Dr. Fauci using salty language as he argued that vaccination mandates at universities and businesses would force people, regardless of their ideology, to get shots. And Republicans pressed Dr. Fauci on whether he earned royalties from drug companies during the pandemic. Dr. Fauci responded that he received about $120 a year for inventing a monoclonal antibody treatment a quarter-century ago.

While Republicans attacked Dr. Fauci, Democrats praised him, thanked him for his public service and apologized for the conduct of their Republican colleagues. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democrat, compared the “big lie” that Trump won the 2020 election to the “big medical lie” that Dr. Fauci was responsible for the Covid pandemic.

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