From the pandemic’s earliest days, Dr. Anthony Fauci has drawn political fire from COVID-19 skeptics. As director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Fauci is steeped in the scientific disciplines of virology, immunology and vaccine design. But critics, especially President Trump and his political allies, continue to excoriate him for supporting textbook public health measures like wearing face coverings and building immunity with vaccines.
The latest example occurred this week on Capitol Hill, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) effectively accused Fauci of sending U.S. tax dollars to China so scientists there could soup up coronaviruses culled from bats and make them more dangerous to people. Then he accused Fauci of lying to Congress about the purported project.
In a final shot, Paul said Fauci could be responsible for more than 4 million deaths worldwide.
Fauci has stoically endured a lot of molten rhetoric over the past 18 months, but he did not accept these charges quietly.
“Sen. Paul, you do not know what you’re talking about, and I want to say that officially,” Fauci said. “I totally resent the lie you are now propagating.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci: “Senator Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially. You do not know what you are talking about.”
Paul told Fox News the following day that he will ask the Department of Justice to explore whether Fauci committed a felony by lying to Congress, a crime which is punishable by up to five years in prison. That would stem from Fauci’s May 11 assertion to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that the National Institutes of Health never funded so-called gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — the type of work that would give a virus new and more dangerous capabilities.
Paul’s claims rest on some very specific assumptions, not all of which have been demonstrated to be true.
In science, at least, assumptions must be verified if the conclusions that emerge from them are to be taken seriously. Due to repeated interruptions, Fauci didn’t get a chance to respond to all of Paul’s charges at this week’s hearing. Let’s consider them now and see how well they are, or could be, backed by evidence.
Assumption 1: NIAID funded gain-of-function at the Wuhan Institute of Technology.
That project focused heavily on China, where novel coronaviruses had emerged from animals on several occasions. The work promised to explore the potential pandemic risk of such viruses by gathering samples from the field, studying viruses in the lab, and developing models about how they could evolve and spread in real life.
In an interview, Fauci said that roughly $600,000 of the grant money went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Scientists there — many of them U.S.-trained — were tasked with nailing down the precise origins of the original SARS-CoV-1 virus that arose in China’s Guangdong Province in 2002. They were also asked to “help us understand what we need to look for” to spot “what might be an inevitable subsequent SARS outbreak.”
That grant allowed scientists to test coronavirus samples harvested from wild animals and their habitats to see whether they were capable of infecting human cells. To do that, the WIV researchers created an experimental “backbone,” a piece of inactivated virus that serves as a standardized testbed. Then, to examine a particular coronavirus sample, they spliced off its spike protein and fused it to the backbone before exposing it to human cells in lab dishes to see if it would grow.
At the time, there was a prohibition against using federal funds…