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Fauci Grilled by Lawmakers on Masks, Vaccine Mandates and Lab Leak Theory

Fauci Grilled by Lawmakers on Masks, Vaccine Mandates and Lab Leak Theory

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

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

“It is inconceivable that anyone who reads this email could conclude that I was trying to cover up the possibility of a laboratory leak,” Dr. Fauci testified.

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

Democrats painted Dr. Fauci as an American hero, with Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, disparaging the Republican-led inquiry as “a witch hunt.” Republicans blamed him for school closings, mask ordinances and other “invasive” policies. One, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, tore into Dr. Fauci, saying, “You belong in prison.”

The Republican-led subcommittee is the only Congressional panel charged with weighing the origins of the worst pandemic in a century and the American policy failures that made it so devastating. Dr. Fauci, the panel’s most prized quarry, was at the center of a Covid response that left the country with far more deaths than many other wealthy nations.

The hearing on Monday occasionally touched on the country’s vulnerability to the pandemic. Representative Brad Wenstrup, Republican of Ohio, the committee’s chairman, bewailed the haphazard way rules had been applied and lamented that public health officials had not been more honest “about what we didn’t know.” Republicans lobbed questions about, among other things, masking policies — a liability for Dr. Fauci, who downplayed the effectiveness of masks for the general public in the pandemic’s early days 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 panel rarely lingered over evidence that concerned the origins of the coronavirus, or responsibility for its brutal toll in the United States. Lawmakers never pressed Dr. Fauci over his reassurances early in 2020 that Americans needed not worry about the virus, which was then sweeping the globe. The hearing occasionally strayed far afield from the pandemic, as when Ms. Taylor Greene waved around a photograph of some beagles and hammered Dr. Fauci over the use of dogs in federally funded experiments. She later blasted him for “repulsive evil science.”

And for all the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and more than 100 hours of closed-door testimony that the panel reviewed, lawmakers produced nothing on Monday linking Dr. Fauci to the beginnings of the Covid outbreak in China, an accusation that has long made him a villain to proponents of the so-called lab leak theory.

Representative Raul Ruiz of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, seized on that dearth of evidence on Monday. “They have come up empty-handed for evidence of their extreme allegations,” he said. Asked after the hearing was over what he had learned, Mr. Ruiz said flatly, “Nothing.”

Dr. Fauci has long faced suspicion over grants that the medical research agency he once led contributed to EcoHealth Alliance, an American virus-hunting nonprofit group. As part of efforts to anticipate disease outbreaks, the grants stipulated that EcoHealth pass some of its funding to scientific collaborators abroad, including a coronavirus lab in Wuhan, China, the city where the pandemic began.

But the coronaviruses being studied at the Wuhan lab with American funding, as well as other such viruses known to be the subject of research there, bore little resemblance to the one that set off the pandemic.

Dr. Fauci said on Monday that it was “molecularly impossible” for the taxpayer-funded experiments in Wuhan to have produced the pandemic-causing virus. “It’s just a virological fact,” Dr. Fauci said, while acknowledging that he did not know whether unreported experiments in China focused on more closely related viruses.

Dr. Fauci said, as he had previously, that he kept an open mind about the pandemic’s origins but that some lab leak theories were conspiratorial. In closed-door testimony, Dr. Fauci told the panel that, in his view, the weight of evidence pointed toward the virus originating from animals before spilling into humans outside a lab.

He referred to studies relying on early cases and viral genomes as well as sampling at an illegal wild animal market in Wuhan that suggested the pandemic-causing virus leaped from animals into people there.

In rooting through emails, Slack messages and research proposals, the panel turned up messages suggesting that Dr. Fauci’s former aides had sought to evade public records laws at the medical research agency he ran for 38 years until his retirement in December 2022.

Some of the emails suggested that agency officials charged with producing records under transparency laws helped colleagues circumvent those regulations, a possibility that a government accountability expert said was “extremely concerning.”

The emails suggested that agency officials were worried not about the emergence of evidence related to the origins of the pandemic, but rather about the disclosure of notes in which they bluntly discussed “political attacks” on their research.

Still, some of those emails painted Dr. Fauci as a man preoccupied with his public image. Others suggested that Dr. Fauci, too, avoided putting sensitive comments in places where the public might eventually find them.

“I can either send stuff to Tony on his private gmail, or hand it to him at work or at his house,” Dr. David Morens, a senior adviser, wrote of Dr. Fauci in the course of reassuring scientists in April 2021 that they need not worry about public records requests — an email that Republican lawmakers repeatedly highlighted on Monday.

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

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

Social distancing rules became another point of contention at the hearing. In closed-door testimony from January, Dr. Fauci told the House panel that the six-foot social distancing rule “sort of just appeared.” He said on Monday that he was referring to the absence of controlled studies on the 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 that and other Covid restrictions. “How long you kept them going is debatable.”

Monday’s hearing was as much theater as it was substance. Two members of the audience were ejected one after saying that Dr. Fauci belonged in prison. Ms. Taylor Greene sparked a kerfuffle within the subcommittee and was rebuked by Mr. Wenstrup after she repeatedly referred to Dr. Fauci as “Mr.” instead of “Dr.”

Another Republican lawmaker played a tape of Dr. Fauci using salty language while arguing that vaccine mandates in colleges and businesses would compel people, no matter their ideology, to get their shots. And Republicans pressed Dr. Fauci on whether he had earned drug company royalties during the pandemic. Dr. Fauci replied that he had received about $120 per year for inventing a monoclonal antibody treatment a quarter-century ago.

While Republicans assailed Dr. Fauci, Democrats heaped on praise, thanking him for his public service and apologizing for the conduct of their Republican colleagues. Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Democrat, analogized the “big lie” that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election to the “medical big lie” that Dr. Fauci was responsible for the Covid pandemic.

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