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Fauci defends his work on COVID-19, says he has an ‘open mind’ on its origins

By Jennifer Shutt

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci defended his decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, testifying before Congress about his work on the virus as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases during two presidencies.

House Republicans who called the hearing grilled Fauci during the contentious three-hour session about the origins of COVID-19, which killed more than 1 million Americans, as well as Fauci’s role in the response. It was the first time Fauci, 83, who also served as chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, had appeared before Congress since leaving government employment in 2022.

Fauci repeatedly said he didn’t conduct official business using personal email in response to allegations he did so to avoid oversight. He also said he has kept an open mind about the origins of the virus, and explained to members of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic why guidance shifted so much during the first several months of the pandemic.

“When you’re dealing with a new outbreak, things change,” Fauci said. “The scientific process collects the information that will allow you, at that time, to make a determination or recommendation or a guideline.”

“As things evolve and change and you get more information, it is important that you use the scientific process to gain that information and perhaps change the way you think of things, change your guidelines and change your recommendation,” Fauci added.

Republicans on the panel repeatedly asked Fauci about how the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China received grant funding from the U.S. government, as well as whether it, or another lab, could have created COVID-19. That theory is counter to another that the virus emerged from a “spillover event” at an outdoor food market.

Fauci testified that it was impossible the viruses being studied at the Wuhan Institute under an NIH subgrant could have led to COVID-19, but didn’t rule out it coming from elsewhere.

“I cannot account, nor can anyone account, for other things that might be going on in China, which is the reason why I have always said and will say now, I keep an open mind as to what the origin is,” Fauci said. “But the one thing I know for sure, is that the viruses that were funded by the NIH, phylogenetically could not be the precursor of SARS-CoV-2.”

Fauci added that the $120,000 grant that was sent to another organization before being sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was a small piece of the budget.

“If they were going to do something on the side, they have plenty of other money to do it. They wouldn’t necessarily have to use a $120,000 NIH grant to do it,” Fauci said.

The NIH subaward to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, he testified, “funded research on the surveillance of and the possibility of emerging infections.”

“I would not characterize it as dangerous gain-of-function research,” Fauci said. “I’ve already testified to that effect, a couple of times.”

Politicians have used multiple, often shifting, definitions for gain-of-function research during the last few years. The American Society for Microbiology writes in a two-page explainer that it is “used in research to alter the function of an organism in such a way that it is able to do more than it used to do.”

Saving lives

Actions taken during the first several months of the pandemic were essential to saving lives, Fauci testified. Those steps included encouraging people to socially distance, to wear masks and to obtain the vaccine once it was approved.

Fauci said that had public health officials just let the virus work its way through the country without any precautions or safety measures, “there very likely would have been another million people (who) would have died.”

Information about the COVID-19 vaccine, he said, was communicated as it came in, including particulars about whether it would stop the spread of the virus entirely or whether it predominantly worked by limiting severe illness and hospitalizations.

The issue is particularly “complicated,” Fauci said, because at the very beginning of the vaccine rollout, data showed the shot did “prevent infection and subsequently, obviously, transmission.”

“However, it’s important to point out, something that we did not know early on that became evident as the months went by, is that the durability of protection against infection, and hence transmission was relatively limited — whereas the duration of protection against severe disease, hospitalization and deaths was more prolonged,” Fauci testified.

“We did not know that in the beginning,” he added. “In the beginning it was felt that, in fact, it did prevent infection and thus transmission. But that was proven, as time went by, to not be a durable effect.”

Republican members on the subcommittee, as well as those sitting in from other committees, repeatedly asked Fauci about allegations that he avoided using his government email address to circumvent requests for those communications under the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA.

Fauci vehemently denied the accusations, saying he “never conducted official business using” his personal email.

Death threats

Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell asked Fauci during the hearing about threats he and his family have faced during the last few years, especially as misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 have spread.

“There have been credible death threats, leading to the arrests of two individuals. And credible death threats means someone who clearly was on their way to kill me,” Fauci testified.

Fauci and his wife and three daughters have received harassing emails, text messages and letters. Fauci said people targeting his family for his public health work makes him feel “terrible.”

“It’s required my having protective services, essentially all the time,” Fauci testified. “It is very troublesome to me.”

One of the most critical Republicans on the panel, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, caused the hearing to grind to a halt during her questioning, refusing to address Fauci as a medical doctor and instead calling him “Mr. Fauci.”

Greene also alleged that Fauci should be in jail, though she didn’t present any evidence of actual crimes, nor has any police department or law enforcement agency charged him with a crime.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, ranking member on the Committee on Oversight and Accountability, of which the subcommittee is a part, said repeated GOP-led investigations into Fauci’s conduct show “he is an honorable public servant, who has devoted his entire career to the public health in the public interest. And he is not a comic book super villain.”

Raskin later apologized to Fauci for several GOP lawmakers treating him like a “convicted felon,” before seemingly referencing that former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a convicted felon.

“Actually, you probably wish they were treating you like a convicted felon. They treat convicted felons with love and admiration,” Raskin said. “Some of them blindly worship convicted felons.”

Minnesota Reformer is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor J. Patrick Coolican for questions: info@minnesotareformer.com. Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.

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