Health authorities and policymakers squandered public trust by lying to the American people.
In July 2020, Anthony Fauci got into a heated exchange with Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul during a Senate committee hearing. At the time, the question of whether the Covid-19 virus might have leaked from a Wuhan, China, laboratory was considered a conspiracy theory by most health officials and media outlets. But a few independent scientists and reporters kept investigating the possibility. A particularly troubling question was whether the U.S. government might have funded “gain-of-function” research that had made a naturally occurring virus more infectious. Fauci had supported such research in the past. And, as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a key branch of the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Institutes of Health, he was involved in distributing millions of dollars in grants to virus researchers around the world. In a hearing several months earlier, Fauci had denied that the NIH ever funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
But new information had come to light since that earlier hearing. Now, Senator Paul pushed the NIAID director to correct the record. “Dr. Fauci, as you are aware it is a crime to lie to Congress,” Rand began, before asking him if he wanted to retract his earlier statement. “Senator Paul, I have never lied before the Congress,” Fauci responded, “and I do not retract that statement.” Paul pushed back, explaining that, by gain-of-function he meant research in which “you take an animal virus and you increase [its] transmissibility to humans.” Fauci wouldn’t budge: “You do not know what you’re talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially.” The exchange grew even more heated. “You are implying what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals. I totally resent that,” Fauci continued. “If anyone is lying here, Senator, it is you.”
Fauci’s haughty defense of his integrity got sympathetic treatment in most media outlets, while Paul’s aggressive questioning was described as “grandstanding.” Their argument wasn’t about whether the NIH had funded research at the lab; it had already been established that $600,000 in NIH grant money had gone to a Wuhan Institute project studying bat coronaviruses. Rather, the debate concerned whether the institute’s manipulations of those viruses could be described as gain-of-function (GOF). Fauci and then-NIH director Francis S. Collins publicly insisted on a narrow definition of GOF, one that didn’t include the Wuhan study. On the other hand, Rutgers University scientist Richard H. Ebright, a vocal critic of such research, told the Washington Post that the NIH-funded Wuhan project was “unequivocally gain-of-function research.”