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- American immunologist and head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
WASHINGTON - Anthony Fauci was swamped by so many angry messages and threats that in late October his assistant quit answering the phone for two weeks. The U.S. covid chief got 3,600 phone calls in 36 hours, just as he and other Biden administration officials were preparing for the campaign to vaccinate young children.
Much of the onslaught stemmed from a viral and false claim that the agency Fauci leads, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had funded a medical experiment in which beagles were trapped in mesh cages filled with diseased sand flies, according to four National Institutes of Health officials familiar with the calls. The outrage was supercharged by a bipartisan letter signed by 24 members of Congress that questioned the agency's funding of medical research on dogs.
"You worthless piece of s—, you should be put in prison. Torturing animals!" said a caller in one of 15 voice mails obtained by The Washington Post. "I'd like to take you out in the sand, tie you down, put them fleas all over your a—."
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Fauci has been a controversial figure during the pandemic, in part because of his public clashes with President Donald Trump over Fauci's support for masks and opposition to unproven covid cures. But a surge of harassment and threats in recent weeks has forced staff at his agency to spend significant time debunking misinformation and grappling with security concerns, according to three of the NIH officials and four senior administration officials, who like some others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Video: Fauci, Collins defend coronavirus vaccine booster rollout
"The constant harassment in the form of ridiculous accusations and outright lies makes doing my job and that of my staff of fighting the covid-19 pandemic all the more difficult," Fauci, who also serves as President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, said in an interview with The Post. "This attack on me, which clearly has political overtones to a nonpolitical scientist, I feel, is dangerous to the entire field of science and [shows] how people try to intimidate scientists."
The wave of anger grew out of a campaign by a little-known animal rights group called the White Coat Waste Project, which leveraged existing hostility among conservatives toward Fauci to further its cause, a Post review found. White Coat Waste has only a small fraction of the budget of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the nation's most prominent animal-research opponent, but the group's message was amplified by a right-wing echo chamber eager to thrash Fauci over everything from vaccine directives to NIH funding of coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in the Chinese city where the pandemic began.
White Coat Waste was well positioned to stir conservative opposition to the trapped-beagle study, and to bring attention to five experiments that were funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, some of which resulted in the animals being euthanized. The group's founder and president is a seasoned Republican operative, and most board members and some top staffers have worked for Republican members of Congress or GOP-leaning organizations.
The false claim about the funding for the beagle study, research that was conducted in Tunisia, originated with an error by scientists. Initially, the researchers mistakenly listed NIAID as a funder when they published a paper in a scientific journal in late July. The journal issued a correction Oct. 26, when the agency flagged the mistake to the researchers amid the deluge of angry phone calls.
But by Oct. 28, "Fauci'' and "puppies" had been posted online, shared or responded to 375,000 times in five days, resulting in potentially billions of views, according to Jeff Yang, a research director at the Institute for the Future, a California-based nonprofit, who studies the flow of information online. Donald Trump Jr. was selling "Fauci Kills Puppies" T-shirts and hoodies. #FauciLiedDogsDied was trending on Twitter. Far-right platforms such as 8kun were awash in memes casting Fauci as a mad, puppy-killing scientist.
As the attacks escalated, White Coat Waste issued a statement saying that it focuses exclusively on animal research and does not take a stand on any of Fauci's policies regarding the pandemic. "To be clear: it is 100% possible to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with Dr. Fauci on most public policies and issues," the group said in a statement, "but go 'toe to toe' with him on the issue of beagle experiments."
By the time the statement came out, the ugly memes about Fauci had spread far and wide.
"He's been turned into this supervillain, a caricature of a mad scientist cooking up experiments to torture puppies, and it's kind of mind-bending," said Yang. "The Fauci-puppies meme has become a phenomenon."
Fueling much of the chatter was a heart-rending image of two beagles, their heads trapped in sand-fly-infested netting - a photo that White Coat Waste began using over the summer and has continued to use to attack Fauci in fundraising appeals even after the scientists and the journal said NIAID did not fund that study.
White Coat Waste spokesman Justin Goodman said the group does not believe NIAID's denial, and he dismissed the journal's correction as "too convenient." The group has accused Fauci of "sentencing beagles to death on taxpayers' dime."
Goodman defended the decision to capitalize on the anti-Fauci fervor that has been brewing for more than a year and a half. "When you have such a high-profile person to point the finger at for funding animal experiments, it would be malpractice for us not to do that," he said.
The group plans to continue to focus on Fauci's support for animal research, he said.
"This is our mission. People are upset, and they should be," Goodman said. "I haven't seen any evidence that people aren't wearing masks or getting vaccinated because of us."
But in the voice mails reviewed by The Post, several callers link the allegations about NIAID-funded animal experiments with Fauci's management of the pandemic.
"When you take those little beagle puppies and you torment them and treat them like they're trash, we're not putting up with it," one caller said. "I wouldn't take this vaccine from that man for nothing after I saw this."
Said another: "You have killed billions of people, and now you're killing animals. Your sick treatment of those beagles, you need to be dealt with."
Several callers specifically referred to the trapped-beagles study NIAID did not fund.
Most of the voice mails were referred to Fauci's security team because of hostile or threatening language, according to one of the NIH officials, and those were not among the messages The Post was able to review. The official declined to say how many were then referred to police. NIAID eventually gave security direct access to the voice mail system, the official said.
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Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and Fauci's boss, said the vitriol generated by the White Coat Waste campaign reflects the prevalence of misinformation during the pandemic. Health officials have had to beat back bogus claims that masks cause health problems and that vaccines contain microchips for government data collection.
"What's happening to Dr. Fauci is a very bright, blazing warning sign that we are, as a culture, in a dangerous place, that we have decided that those figures who are highly visible, who are saying things we don't like, have to be taken down," Collins said in an interview. "And even more troubling, that that seems to be working. It's not a fringe activity anymore."
Fauci, who has run NIAID for nearly 40 years and is now serving his seventh president, has faced public scrutiny during some of the world's most urgent health crises: HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika.
Fauci became an effective foil for Republican politicians seeking to win favor with Trump and his supporters after the White House released a memo last year that accused him of reversing himself repeatedly during the pandemic. Conspiracy theories about him multiplied, fueled largely by the right.
"We want people to practice public health practices. And for that, his life gets threatened. His wife and his children get harassed and threatened," Fauci told The Post, referring to himself in the third person.
But the incendiary rhetoric, photos and hashtags deployed by the White Coat Waste #beaglegate campaign in recent months created the biggest firestorm yet for Fauci.
Unlike more typical efforts by White Coat Waste and PETA against government-funded animal research, the #beaglegate campaign aggressively targeted Fauci personally, borrowing opposition research tactics used by campaigns to exploit vulnerabilities in political opponents.
NIAID has an annual budget of $6.5 billion and currently supports about 10,000 medical studies. NIH declined to say how many of the studies it currently supports involve animals, including monkeys and dogs.
Public pressure to limit animal research has increased in recent decades, leading Congress to pass laws that protect against inhumane treatment and require extensive justification for the use of animals in medical experiments. While the FDA said it is committed to reducing reliance on animal studies, the agency said such research remains necessary.
Fauci declined to comment on his agency's support for animal research but pointed to an NIAID statement that said any such research must comply with laws and regulations to ensure "the smallest possible number of subjects and the greatest commitment to their welfare."
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White Coat Waste was founded in 2013 by Anthony Bellotti, a veteran GOP operative who told The Post he developed a passion for animal rights as a teenager during a stint at a lab doing medical research on pigs. Bellotti's political resume includes directing campaigns to end public funding for Planned Parenthood, mobilize opposition to the Affordable Care Act and pass a California ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage. He also led opposition research for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection campaign as California governor.
"On all these campaigns I learned valuable things about how modern, political, 21st-century advocacy should be done and how it shouldn't be done," he said. "I took a lot of time with White Coat to learn from the mistakes of other animal-rights groups because there were plenty of them and their track record was so bad."
Bellotti said he was inspired by how the debate over criminal-justice reform - typically dominated by liberals - was reframed to appeal to law-and-order Republicans by focusing on the prison system's costs. White Coat Waste set out to unite animal lovers with fiscal conservatives, challenging not just the ethics of animal research but also its burden on taxpayers. "We had to push it to the right," Bellotti said.
The group describes itself as bipartisan. A separate political committee co-founded by Goodman and Bellotti has donated to Democrats and Republicans. But Bellotti's position at the helm of White Coat Waste and the number of board members and top staffers who have worked in Republican politics stand out in the animal-rights movement.
Members of White Coat Waste's board and staff boast resumes that include stints as public affairs manager for the conservative nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council, legislative director for Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and digital director for the Senate Republican Conference vice chair. During the Trump administration, which frequently challenged the scientific consensus around climate change and public health, White Coat Waste was embraced by prominent Republicans such as former television producer Lara Trump, Eric Trump's wife; and actress Louise Linton, wife of then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Knowing people on the right has been helpful, Bellotti said, because other animal-rights advocates were focused the left. White Coat Waste has sometimes joined forces with far-right personalities known for sowing conspiracy theories and misinformation.
In 2018 and 2019, Bellotti participated in interviews with longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone - dubbed a "legendary political consultant" by White Coat Waste - that were posted on Infowars, the right-wing website that is banned from many platforms.
Bellotti has appeared twice recently on One America News, giving interviews featuring the photo of the trapped-beagle study NIAID did not fund. "You have now pissed off dog lovers and animal lovers across the globe by seeing that image," said OAN host Dan Ball.
After months of attacking Fauci's record and management of the pandemic, a host of right-wing sites - OAN, the Gateway Pundit, Breitbart and others - have heavily publicized White Coat Waste's recent attacks against Fauci.
Goodman, the White Coat Waste spokesman, said the group's work has been highlighted by news outlets on the left, including the Huffington Post and AlterNet. "We don't care why people care about our issue, as long as they do something about it," said Goodman, who used to work at PETA. "Our job is to widen the tent."
Other animal-rights activists have taken note of White Coat Waste's successful campaign targeting Fauci and are joining the group on far-right platforms. Shannon Keith, who for more than a decade has led the Beagle Freedom Project, said she was approached for the first time last month by OAN to do an interview about animal research backed by Fauci's agency. She accepted.
"I know a lot of Republicans are jumping on because of Fauci, but I see that as a positive thing because we have their attention," she said.
PETA spokeswoman Kathy Guillermo, who called for Fauci's resignation during a recent interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, said, "There is definitely a lot more interest now from the right."
As a tax-exempt charitable organization, White Coat Waste is not required to disclose individual donors to the public. The group reported about $2.5 million in revenue last year, up from $1.4 million in 2019, according to tax filings.
White Coat Waste says 78% of its budget comes from individuals and 18% from foundations.
"We've never received a penny from any right-wing group or any GOP-affiliated group, period," Goodman said.
After The Post first interviewed Goodman for this story, White Coat Waste claimed on social media that it was "under attack." It accused Post reporters of preparing a "political hit job" intended to "protect Fauci."
Goodman and Bellotti made similar claims to iconoclastic journalist and animal-rights activist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote about those claims in a newsletter that he shared with his 1.7 million Twitter followers, triggering a round of coverage in the Daily Caller and other conservative publications.
Goodman later told The Post he was "just doing my job."
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White Coat Waste launched its #beaglegate campaign in July with a post on its website about an NIAID grant last year to the University of Georgia. The post was titled "Fauci spent $424K on beagle experiments, dogs bitten to death by flies."
The experiment involved testing a vaccine for lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes that affects tens of millions of people and can cause severe disability. Twenty-eight beagles were injected with a dog parasite larva and then had to be euthanized because the disease is not endemic in the U.S. and federal regulations do not allow infected animals to be released, NIAID officials said.
The following month, White Coat Waste posted to social media platforms a photo of two trapped beagles from a different study, the one conducted in Tunisia that had erroneously credited NIAID as a funder. The group wrote, "Photos: Fauci funded $375K beagle torture overseas, too."
The group flagged other studies on dogs supported by NIAID over the coming weeks, eventually attracting attention from Congress. Fifteen Republican lawmakers and nine Democrats signed a letter authored by Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., demanding Fauci address "reports of costly, cruel, and unnecessary taxpayer-funded experiments on dogs."
Mace's letter on Oct. 24 led to widespread coverage in the lawmakers' local newspapers, feeding the biggest cycle of anti-Fauci online chatter since the #beaglegate campaign began.
"It reached critical mass because there's a feedback loop that happens when information is shared by both legitimate news sources and then by inflammatory and right-wing media outlets and influencers," said Alyssa Kann, a research assistant in the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
The congressional letter did not mention the trapped-beagles study but focused on a different experiment, one the NIAID did fund, in which 44 beagles were injected with an HIV/AIDS drug and euthanized so their tissues could be examined for toxic effects. The letter borrowed language from the White Coat Waste campaign, saying that study involved "slitting a dog's vocal cords in order to prevent them from barking, howling, or crying."
A cordectomy is a surgical procedure performed while a dog is under anesthesia to either soften or eliminate barking. NIAID said it was necessary to protect the researchers from hearing loss because the study included so many dogs in one place.
"Using American taxpayer dollars to de-bark and poison puppies is both inhumane and a disgrace to this country," Mace told The Post.
As the Mace letter amped up criticism of the beagle research, broader attacks against Fauci - with hashtags like #FireFauciNow and #FauciLiedPeopleDied - surged, said Kann, who did a digital media analysis at The Post's request.
Republicans with millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Eric Trump, Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, boosted the narrative. Trump's first national security adviser Mike Flynn compared Fauci to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted grotesque experiments on prisoners in concentration camps.
The day after the Mace letter, on Oct. 25, NIAID's public inquiries line received 600 to 700 voice mails, according to two people familiar with the calls. The agency decided to stop answering the public inquiries line for about a week because of the verbal abuse directed at staffers.
Fauci's main office line - used by government officials, outside scientists and reporters to reach him - was bombarded over a day and a half, with the 3,600 calls resulting in about 1,800 voice mails, two of the NIH officials said.
That phone number and NIAID's public inquiries line were widely shared on social media, including Reddit and 4chan. A White Coat Waste email on Oct. 25 urged supporters to "politely" call the public inquiry and media lines and express opposition to the beagle experiments. The Beagle Freedom Project put Fauci's main office phone number and government email on its homepage shortly after the Mace letter went out.
Keith of the Beagle Freedom Project said providing contact information to hold a public official accountable is a common tactic in the advocacy world. "I am sure the government has the funding to open a few more phone lines," Keith said.
It took NIAID a full day to identify which of the studies referenced by White Coat Waste it had and had not funded, and to put out a statement fact-checking allegations about the studies' purposes and protocols.
On Oct. 26, three months after the trapped-beagle study was published, the authors alerted PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases Journal to the error, according to David Knutson, a spokesman for the journal. The journal immediately posted a correction.
In an interview with The Post, one of the researchers, Abhay Satoskar, a professor of pathology and microbiology at Ohio State University, explained how the mistake occurred. Satoskar said an NIAID grant that the same group of scientists had received for a different experiment was mistakenly cited for the trapped-beagles study. "It had nothing to do with NIAID," Satoskar said.
PETA has repeated the false funding claim by White Coat Waste and said it, too, does not believe the journal's correction.
The trapped-beagles study does not appear in a database of NIH-funded projects.
The study that NIAID did fund by those researchers, also in Tunisia, involved evaluating a vaccine for leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by sand flies that infects both humans and dogs. Twelve dogs were given the vaccine and then put in a fenced-in open space outside during high sand fly season, NIAID said, to see if the dogs still became infected. That study is ongoing, though NIAID's funding has ended.
Two Democrats who signed Mace's letter told The Post they regret inadvertently inflaming the line of attack against Fauci from the right.
"You're talking to a member who doesn't want dogs used in experiments at all, but now I see that some of the information against Fauci has been falsified," said Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington D.C.'s nonvoting delegate in the House, referring to the trapped-beagles study.
"I wasn't thinking about Fauci at all. I just saw beagles being killed and sort of knee-jerk responded to it," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "I have a high regard for Dr. Fauci, and I feel badly about the effort to diminish his outstanding work to protect our country from the coronavirus pandemic."