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Fact check: Did Fauci contradict Pompeo on whether coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan lab?


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Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Numerous media outlets have reported that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and most prominent face on President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force, contradicted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's claim that there is "enormous evidence" that the coronavirus outbreak originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Fauci's full comments can be found in an interview with National Geographic.

Numerous liberal media outlets have claimed, with blaring headlines, that Fauci's comments contradict Pompeo's. For example:

  • Business Insider: Fauci again dismisses conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was made in a Wuhan lab after Pompeo touted 'enormous evidence' of a cover-up
  • Newsweek: Dr. Fauci dismisses Wuhan lab as source of coronavirus, contradicting Pompeo and Trump
  • The Hill: Fauci dismisses 'circular argument' coronavirus originated in Chinese lab
It is true that Fauci stated his belief, which is consistent with what other scientists have said, that the virus was not artificially engineered or created in the Wuhan lab.
"The best evidence shows the virus behind the pandemic was not made in a lab in China," Dr. Fauci said in his interivew.
This, however, does not contradict Pompeo, who did not state that the virus was engineered or artificially created in the lab, but rather that the outbreak began in the lab. The claim that has been made by administration officials, which is consistent with evidence unearthed elsewhere, is that Chinese scientists were studying the virus, which they found in nature, when it escaped.
Some of the reports accurately note that this distinction exists, but falsely claim that Fauci "denied" or "dismissed" this contention as well. For example:
  • The Hill: "Fauci similarly dismissed theories the virus was naturally-occurring but had been accidentally released from a lab where it was being studied, setting off the pandemic."
  • The New York Post: "He added that he doesn't believe 'an alternate theory — that someone found the coronavirus in the wild, brought it to a lab, and then it accidentally escaped.'"
Even National Geographic's own writeup of Fauci's remarks characterizes it this way: "Based on the scientific evidence, he also doesn't entertain an alternate theory—that someone found the coronavirus in the wild, brought it to a lab, and then it accidentally escaped."
However, the actual text of Fauci's remarks make it clear that he said no such thing. Here is the relevant question and answer from the National Geographic interview:

Q: Sure, but what if scientists found the virus outside the lab, brought it back, and then it escaped?

A: But that means it was in the wild to begin with. That's why I don't get what they're talking about [and] why I don't spend a lot of time going in on this circular argument.

Fauci does not "dismiss" or "deny" this theory. Nowhere in this answer does he indicate that he does not believe it or has evidence to contradict it. What he does say is that it does not matter to him, as a scientist who is trying to figure out how to defeat the virus, whether the outbreak started in a wet market, as a result of faulty lab procedures, or anywhere else. So he doesn't think about it or consider it.

That is clearly not a denial, or a contradiction, or a statement that he does not believe the theory. It is a statement that the question is outside his purview, so he does not care.

Other people, of course, might very well care whether negligent containment procedures led to the outbreak of the coronavirus, and a full accounting of its origin might be important in shaping United States policy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. But it is not surprising that Fauci, whose sole concern ought to be minimizing the public health impact of the pandemic, would not care.

A statement of indifference, however, is not a denial or dismissal of the theory, nor is it a statement that he does not believe it. For these reasons, the claim that Fauci contradicted Pompeo's claim is false.

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