Key takeaways: Fauci defends against GOP claims on COVID origins, response

Fauci called some assertions "seriously distorted" in public testimony.

June 3, 2024, 5:55 PM

Dr. Anthony Fauci faced intense scrutiny from House Republicans at a hearing on Monday as lawmakers continue to investigate his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and examine theories of the origin of the virus.

Fauci previously proclaimed that he had "nothing to hide" and came before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic voluntarily. The more than three-hour hearing marked the first time he's publicly testified since he left the federal government at the end of 2022 after five decades of service.

Fauci's appearance on Capitol Hill comes amid a contentious election cycle, with Republicans continuing to hammer him on his response to the virus -- everything from mask mandates to vaccine guidelines and origin possibilities.

"Americans were aggressively bullied, shamed and silenced for merely questioning or debating issues such as social distancing, masks, vaccines or the origins of COVID," chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said in opening remarks.

Fauci addressed those issues, and adamantly defended himself from Republican attacks, calling certain matters "seriously distorted."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, takes his seat as he arrives for a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, June 3, 2024.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Democrats, led by ranking member Raul Ruiz, sought to focus on moving forward -- and accused Republicans of using Fauci as a scapegoat for mistakes made during the early days of the pandemic by former President Donald Trump.

"After 15 months, the select subcommittee does not possess a shred of evidence to substantiate these extreme allegations Republicans have levied against Dr. Fauci for nearly four years," Ruiz said.

Tensions boiled over when Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Fauci's most passionate detractors, said his license should be revoked and he should be imprisoned. She was stopped by chair Rep. Wenstrup, a fellow Republican, because of a lack of decorum. Democrats defended Fauci in the aftermath, with Rep. Robert Garcia calling Greene's comments "completely irresponsible."

Here are several key takeaways from the hearing.

Fauci pushes back on GOP claims about origins of the virus

Fauci forcefully denied GOP accusations that he meddled in research about the pandemic's origins, including claims that he tried to sway scientists away from the possibility the virus came from a lab.

"The accusation being circulated that I influenced the scientists to change their minds by bribing them with millions of dollars in grant money is absolutely false, and simply preposterous," he said.

"The second issue is a false accusation that I tried to cover up the possibility that the virus originated from a lab. In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite," he added, proceeding to read an email in which he encouraged scientists to report their data to authorities.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, June 3, 2024.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Fauci also rejected that National Institutes of Health funding led to research that ultimately created COVID-19, as some Republicans have floated. Fauci said the viruses studied under grants provided by the agency were "phylogenetically so different, they could not possibly be the precursor of SARS-CoV-2."

He acknowledged that didn't rule out the theory of a lab leak as the pandemic's origin, but said it did eliminate the possibility that NIH funding was knowingly tied to it.

"None of us can know everything that's going on in China, or in Wuhan, or what have you. And that's the reason why I say today … I keep an open mind as to what the origin is," Fauci said, though he maintained that he thinks the data leans more toward a "natural occurrence from an animal reservoir."

Fauci distances himself from adviser caught using private email

Committee Republicans repeatedly pressed Fauci about a recent development they say warrants further scrutiny: an email exchange between a former NIAID senior adviser and an executive of a controversial virus research organization where the adviser claims Fauci's private Gmail account could be utilized to evade public records requests and future public scrutiny. Ahead of the hearing, they requested access to Fauci's personal email account and cellphone records.

Fauci rejected suggestions he used his private email in his official capacity, and both denounced and distanced himself from the adviser's actions.

"Let me state for the record that to the best of my knowledge I have never conducted official business via my personal email," Fauci said.

Records show that the colleague, Dr. David Morens, used his private Gmail account to shield information from the public's reach, including to send EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak official government documents and a heads-up about information that would become public through a request pertaining to EcoHealth Alliance grant materials and COVID-19 research.

Dr. David Morens speaks during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on Capitol Hill on May 22, 2024 in Washington, DC.
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images, FILE

Considering Morens was a close adviser to Fauci, Republicans on the subcommittee expressed concern that Fauci had knowledge of his conduct and questioned whether Fauci potentially engaged in any misconduct himself.

Fauci told lawmakers he "knew nothing" of Morens' actions with Daszak or EcoHealth, denounced Morens' behavior as inappropriate and asserted Morens was not "an adviser to me on institute policy or other substantive issues."

Fauci reflects on social distancing, mask and vaccine mandates

On other issues regarding pandemic policy, like the decision to recommend 6 feet of social distancing or for schools to close down, Fauci was reflective but maintained that the virus was a constantly moving target and the science that was available on the novel virus was often limited.

"I think the things that we did in the beginning were in the context of the horrible situation of 4,000 to 5,000 deaths a day. But that doesn't mean that you don't go back and look and say everything we do at that point and the duration for which we did it -- was that appropriate? And do we need to be examined?" Fauci said.

In closed-door transcribed interviews with the committee earlier this year, Fauci told lawmakers the 6-foot guidance "sort of just appeared"-- prompting rebuke from Republicans who claimed it wasn't based on science.

Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) speaks at a hearing with the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic on Capitol Hill on July 11, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, FILE

Fauci sought to clarify on Monday that the 6-foot guidance came from the CDC and was based on droplet research, telling lawmakers: "It had little to do with me since I didn't make the recommendation and my saying 'there was no science behind it' meant there was no clinical trial behind that."

Though asked if social distancing requirements and other public health measures to reduce transmission saves lives, Fauci said "definitely."

Staff counsel for the committee also pressed Fauci if, going forward, there should be a better process for thinking about the possible unintended consequences of public health measures. His response was "absolutely."

Fauci chokes up discussing death threats against his family

Fauci, 83, served for decades as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acting as a scientific check to Trump during the pandemic and later as President Joe Biden's chief medical advisor before retiring in 2022.

He previously spoke out about the death threats he received due to his outsized and public role from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, he said those threats continue and became emotional while answering questions about the impact on his family.

"It is very troublesome to me. It is much more troublesome because they've involved my wife and my three daughters," he said, his voice beginning to waver.

"At this moment, how do you feel?" pushed Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell.

"Terrible," Fauci replied.

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