‘Preposterous’: Anthony Fauci denies cover-up of COVID origins during tense hearing (2024)

‘Preposterous’: Anthony Fauci denies cover-up of COVID origins during tense hearing (1)

Capitol Hill, Washington DC

Anthony Fauci, the former head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), emphatically fended off allegations at a Republican-led hearing in Washington DC today that his agency funded research that created the COVID-19 pandemic and that he coordinated a cover-up of the pandemic’s origins, calling the claims “simply preposterous”.

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The 3 June session was one of the most anticipated of the hearings hosted by the US House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. The subcommittee has held a total of 27 hearings and briefings over the past 15 months to examine the federal government’s response to the pandemic and to attempt to uncover the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

As has been the case at most of the hearings, the questioning during Fauci’s session reflected a deep political divide in the US government. Republicans criticized Fauci’s oversight of both NIAID-funded research grants and the institute’s staff members. Meanwhile, Democrats sang the praises of the former chief medical adviser to US President Joe Biden, commending him on a distinguished career that has seen many lives saved through his research on AIDS treatments and the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, told Nature that the hearing was a Republican “attempt at revisionist history” to ignore the policy failures of the administration of former US president Donald Trump early during the pandemic and to “blame the scientists”. Offering another perspective, Roger Pielke Jr, a science-policy researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, says that the hearing was “substantively frustrating” at times when Fauci, a seasoned public speaker, chose his words carefully and tried to distance himself from people who had been implicated in wrongdoing by the subcommittee’s investigation.

Allegations of a cover-up

Fauci, who stepped down from his role at NIAID in December 2022 after leading the agency for almost 40 years, was the face of the US pandemic response during both the Trump and Biden administrations.

Some critics have accused Fauci of suppressing the idea early in the pandemic that China might have accidentally or intentionally released SARS-CoV-2 from a laboratory in Wuhan, the city where the first cases of COVID-19 were detected. Some have alleged that Fauci, along with Francis Collins, former director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) — of which NIAID is a part — encouraged a group of virologists to publish an article in Nature Medicine1 concluding that a lab-leak scenario was not plausible. (Nature is editorially independent of Nature Medicine, and Nature’s news team is independent of its journals team.)

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These critics also say that Fauci and Collins were motivated to suppress the lab-leak theory because, before the pandemic, the NIAID had awarded a research grant to the New York City-based non-profit organization EcoHealth Alliance, which had been partnering with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to study coronaviruses in bats. They have raised the possibility that the WIV used NIAID resources to conduct research that could have spawned SARS-CoV-2. At the hearing, Fauci responded that the available genetic data indicate that the viruses investigated at the WIV “could not be the precursor to SARS-CoV-2”.

Most virologists say that although a lab-leak origin is possible, the preponderance of scientific evidence points to a zoonotic origin for the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that the virus spread to humans from wild animals. At the hearing, Fauci said he has always been open to both origin hypotheses, pointing to a February 2020 e-mail he sent to a prominent scientist who was alarmed that SARS-CoV-2 could have leaked from a lab. In the correspondence, Fauci said that any concerns should be reported to intelligence officials if they were substantiated. “It is inconceivable that anyone who reads this e-mail could conclude that I was trying to cover up the possibility of a laboratory leak,” he testified.

Raul Ruiz, a Democratic representative from California and ranking member of the subcommittee, said at the hearing that House Republicans have used the guise of investigating the pandemic’s origins to weaponize “concerns about a lab-related origin to fuel sentiment against our nation’s scientists”.

Heated exchanges

Fauci, who led NIAID during seven presidential administrations, starting with Ronald Reagan in 1984, is no stranger to controversy. In the 1980s, AIDS activists were highly critical of him because they felt that NIAID’s clinical trials for HIV drugs were moving too slowly, and that people were dying unnecessarily. Early in the pandemic, while Trump was in office, Fauci drew the president’s ire and was sometimes sidelined on account of Trump’s desire to quickly re-open businesses and his reluctance to promote public-health measures such as masking and social distancing.

During previous hearings, the subcommittee has taken aim at others in Fauci’s sphere. At a 1 May session, Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth, was lambasted by both Democrats and Republicans for improper management of the grant that the non-profit group shared with the WIV to study coronaviruses. In the weeks after that tense session, the US Department of Health and Human Services suspended federal funding to EcoHealth and to Daszak personally, and suggested that it would also consider debarring both — a more serious halting of financial support that generally lasts for up to three years.

‘Preposterous’: Anthony Fauci denies cover-up of COVID origins during tense hearing (4)

The panel also grilled David Morens, a top adviser to Fauci during the pandemic, on 22 May over his communications with Daszak and his use of personal e-mail for official work in an apparent attempt to evade public-records requests. Morens is now on administrative leave from the NIH. At today’s hearing, Fauci distanced himself from Morens, adding that his former adviser’s actions were against policy and inappropriate, and that the two of them had worked in separate buildings. He also said that, despite his title, “functionally, Dr Morens was not an adviser to me on institute policy or other substantive issues”.

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Republicans also ripped into Fauci’s promotion of masking, vaccination and social distancing during the pandemic. Fauci “oversaw one of the most invasive regimes of domestic policy the US has ever seen”, said Brad Wenstrup, a Republican representative from Ohio and chair of the subcommittee. Fauci countered that although in hindsight some measures might not have been as necessary as others, public-health officials had to make decisions with limited data at the outset of the pandemic, and that other agencies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were responsible for implementing the policies.

In a heated exchange during the hearing, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Republican representative from Georgia, made a point of refusing to call the infectious-diseases specialist “Dr Fauci”, instead opting for “Mr Fauci”. Her suggestion that he didn’t deserve the title of doctor drew rebuke from Democrats on the committee. “We should be writing a criminal referral because you should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity,” she told Fauci. “You belong in prison.”

By the end of 2024, the subcommittee will release a final report with the findings and recommendations of its two-year investigation. But Pielke Jr says he struggles to see how the subcommittee’s work will advance policy that will help the country to prepare for the next pandemic, given the intense partisanship shown at the hearings. He wishes the hearings focused more on how to convene independent scientific advisory boards — free of political influence — to help to inform public-health decisions such as mandates and to investigate the origins of pathogens. “What legislation is going to emerge from this series of hearings?” he asks. “It’d be hard to put my finger on anything tangible.”

‘Preposterous’: Anthony Fauci denies cover-up of COVID origins during tense hearing (2024)
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