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WASHINGTON — Certainties may be rare in Washington these days, but blowups between Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Biden, have become one of the few reliable features of life inside the Beltway, right up there with the relentless humidity of summer.
That much was made clear, once again, during a hearing of the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday, during which the two sparred over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Paul accused Fauci of misrepresenting, in earlier testimony, the nature of U.S. government funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, where some believe the virus originated as the result of a lab experiment gone awry. He ended his characteristically long question by reminding Fauci that it is a “crime to lie to Congress.”
Fauci did not take to the suggestion kindly. “I have not lied before the Congress,” the veteran government immunologist responded. He rejected Paul’s offer to “retract” his earlier testimony about U.S. funding of viral research into the pandemic’s shadowy beginnings.
“Sen. Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly,” Fauci continued. “And I want to say that officially.”
Never one for niceties, Paul charged that Fauci was trying to “obscure responsibility” for the devastation the coronavirus has caused around the world.
From there, unsurprisingly, the tone escalated. “I totally resent the lie that you are now propagating,” Fauci snarled back at the senator.
There was shouting and gesticulating, with lots of heat but little light. Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., tried to intervene, to little effect.
As evidence of his allegation, Paul cited a scientific research paper into bat viruses by a Wuhan researcher. The research in question had been partially supported by the National Institutes of Health. (In addition to serving as an adviser to the White House, Fauci is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the NIH.)
Fauci in turn told Paul, who is an ophthalmologist by training, that he had failed to understand the research, adding that it was “molecularly impossible” for the Wuhan Institute of Virology to have conducted the kind of research that would have led to the advent of SARS-CoV-2.
Paul has previously said that the NIH did not permit Chinese laboratories to use funds from the United States for gain-of-function research, which boosts viruses in order to study their behavior.
Conservatives have seized on Fauci’s email exchanges with other scientists — which were made public as part of a Freedom of Information Act request — to suggest he is hiding the complicity of the U.S. medical establishment. There is no evidence of such complicity, or of a cover-up, but the lack of cooperation from Beijing has allowed conspiracy theories about Fauci and others to proliferate.
“If anybody is lying here, Senator, it is you,” Fauci said near the end of their terse exchange, which, as he himself noted, fell into a somewhat predictable “pattern.”
Indeed, Fauci and Paul were not exactly friends before Tuesday’s exchange. At a hearing in June 2020, Paul challenged Fauci on school closures, although Fauci had said he supported reopening schools for in-person instruction, provided proper preventive measures like mask wearing were taken.
Before answering the senator on that occasion, Fauci offered what appeared to be a good-natured smile, saying he was in “lock agreement” about school reopening.
The exchanges between them would grow more acrimonious, with ever fewer agreements and smiles. That may have had to do with conservatives’ growing hostility toward Fauci, who ran afoul of President Donald Trump, despite having served as his adviser.
In March 2021, Fauci and Paul argued at a Senate hearing on face masks, which had by then become the subject of an intense culture war but which were also widely accepted as a fact of pandemic life by most Americans. Paul wondered why Fauci and others who were vaccinated “parade around in two masks for show,” since vaccinated people appear to be at exceptionally low risk for either contracting or spreading the coronavirus.
“I totally disagree with you,” Fauci responded. He then went on a morning news show and described Paul as “dead wrong”on this point.
Several weeks later, Paul confronted Fauci with the issue at the heart of Tuesday’s exchange: whether the NIH inadvertently funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab that has been at the center of scrutiny over the origin of the pandemic. Such research is necessary, scientists say, to see how viruses evolve. But if that research is conducted in a laboratory with lax biosecurity standards, the danger of the virus “escaping” could increase substantially.
During that encounter, Fauci said Paul’s accusation of potential impropriety was “entirely and completely incorrect."
Fauci and NIH Director Francis Collins have both said the NIH did not fund gain-of-function research. The funding went through an intermediary called EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based not-for-profit organization whose founder, Dr. Peter Daszak, has a close relationship with virologists in Wuhan and has vigorously defended them against accusations of wrongdoing.
Although conservatives like Paul have long championed the hypothesis that the virus escaped from the laboratory, the notion that human error is responsible for the coronavirus has gained traction with the American public.
President Biden has instructed the U.S. intelligence community to produce an assessment of how the pandemic originated. That assessment is expected by summer’s end.
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times /Pool via AP
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