Dr. Anthony Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) each accused the other of "lying" in a heated back-and-forth exchange about the National Institute of Health's role in funding the coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
During a Senate Health Committee hearing on the federal government's COVID-19 response, Paul challenged Fauci over comments he made at a previous Senate hearing denying that the NIH funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab.
"Dr. Fauci, as you are aware it is a crime to lie to Congress," Paul began when it was his turn to ask questions. "On your last trip to our committee on May 11, you stated that the NIH 'has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.' And yet, gain-of-function research was done entirely in the Wuhan Institute by Dr. Shi and was funded by the NIH."
Paul cited as proof of his claims a 2015 study conducted by Dr. Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, in collaboration with Dr. Shi Zhengli, the chief coronavirus researcher at the Wuhan lab. He said the study, which the authors acknowledged was funded by NIH, used gain-of-function experiments to make a coronavirus sample taken from bats — an entirely different virus from SARS-Cov-2 — transmissible among humans.
Gain-of-function research involves genetically enhancing viral pathogens in order to predict which may become especially dangerous to the human population. The research is controversial because of the risk that a virus previously only found in animals and subsequently altered to infect humans could be released — accidentally or deliberately — and cause a pandemic.
Between 2014 and 2017, the federal government established a moratorium on funding for gain-of-function research, but the study Baric and Shi co-authored received approval from NIH after review. The funding received by the Wuhan lab to conduct this research was provided by the nonprofit group EcoHealth Alliance, which had received grants from the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), led by none other than Dr. Fauci.
"Viruses that in nature only infect animals were manipulated in the Wuhan lab to gain the function of infecting humans. This research fits the definition of the research that the NIH said was subject to the pause in 2014-2017, a pause in funding on gain-of-function. But the NIH failed to recognize this," Paul said.
The NIAID director was previously aware of the study Paul cited. On Feb. 1, 2020, Fauci sent an email with the study attached to NIAID Principal Deputy Director Hugh Auchincloss amid internal discussions at NIH about the possible origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on ... read this paper as well as the e-mail that I will forward to you now. You will have tasks today that must be done," Fauci wrote to Auchincloss. The email communications were made public as part of a Freedom of Information Act request from BuzzFeed News.
Paul asked if Fauci would like to retract his comments from the May 11 hearing in light of the fact that it appears Fauci authorized sub-grants that were given to EcoHealth Alliance and then transferred to the Wuhan lab for the research published in the 2015 paper, of which he was aware when he testified to Congress.
"Sen. Paul, I have never lied before the Congress, and I do not retract that statement. This paper, that you're referring to, was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain-of-function," Fauci replied.
Interrupting, Paul challenged Fauci's definition of gain-of-function research, which made Fauci visibly angry.
"Sen. Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially," he scolded. "You do not know what you are talking about."
Paul interjected again, quoting from a definition of gain-of-function research authored by the NIH and demanding that Fauci explain how the NIH-funded experiments conducted at the Wuhan lab did not meet that definition.
"How can you say that's not gain-of-function?" he asked.
"It is not," Fauci insisted, without elaborating.
"It's a dance and you're dancing around this because you're trying to obscure responsibility for 4 million people dying around the world from a pandemic," Paul continued, cutting Fauci off.
Fauci raised his hand in objection to Paul's assertion. "If the point that you are making is that the grant that was funded as a sub-award from EcoHealth to Wuhan created SARS-CoV-2 — that's where you are getting, let me finish," Fauci said as Paul interrupted again.
"We don't know," the senator said, acknowledging that the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus remain unknown. "But all the evidence is pointing that it came from the lab and there will be responsibility for those that funded the lab, including yourself," Paul told Fauci.
"I totally resent the lie that you are now propagating, senator," Fauci snarled in response.
He said it was "molecularly impossible" for the viruses examined in the 2015 Wuhan study to be related to SARS-CoV-2 or to have caused the COVID-19 pandemic, appearing to misinterpret Paul's allegations. Paul countered that he wasn't alleging anything of the sort.
"What we're alleging is that gain-of-function research was going on in that lab and NIH funded it. You can't get away from it, it meets your definition, and you are obfuscating the truth," Paul charged.
"I am not obfuscating the truth, you're the one," replied Fauci. He accused Paul of implying that the NIH grants he authorized were responsible for deaths caused by the pandemic.
"I totally resent that, and if anybody is lying here, senator, it is you," Fauci finished.
Scientists are in disagreement over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of the world's top scientific experts believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus occurred in nature and evolved to be transmissible among humans, there are others who hypothesize the virus was either obtained and stored in the Wuhan lab or artificially engineered as part of a gain-of-function experiment and subsequently leaked.
The lab-leak hypothesis is growing in mainstream acceptance as scientists have so far failed to find an animal host for SARS-CoV-2, though evidence is far from conclusive for either hypothesis.
Whether the U.S. government funded research at the Wuhan lab that led to the outbreak of the pandemic remains unknown. Fauci's angry denials and his clash with Paul over the technical definition of gain-of-function research did not contribute to answering that question.