Hiltzik: House Republicans attack Fauci, but fail to land a blow

Here's what we know about Dr. Anthony S. Fauci: A staff member at the National Institutes of Health for 54 years and director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 38 years, Fauci was a key figure in the development of therapies for HIV and ensuring that funding was available for the search for a cure.

Under his leadership, NIAID invested billions of dollars in research that resulted in the development of mRNA technology, which in turn resulted in the development of COVID-19 vaccines in record time, saving millions of lives.

Under Fauci, NIAID also sponsored research into treatments for pandemic influenza and the Ebola and Zika viruses. When COVID hit, he was appointed top adviser to then-President Trump — one of seven presidents he advised during his career, from Reagan to Biden.

There have been credible death threats that have led to the arrest of two people, and “credible death threats” means someone who was clearly on their way to kill me.

–Anthony S. Fauci

He is revered in the communities of immunologists and virologists; even after Trump sidelined him for speaking truths about COVID that Trump didn't like, he was a prominent spokesperson for a scientific approach to the pandemic.

That's how Republicans portrayed him during a Monday hearing of the Republican Party-dominated Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus: as the mastermind of “dogmatic” policies that resulted in school closures and business bankruptcies, of forced vaccinations, of “one of the most invasive regimes of domestic policy that the US has ever seen.”

As the financial sugar daddy of the research abroad that COVID created. As a sponsor of policies that are “fundamentally un-American.” As a liar and hypocrite.

None of these accusations, made Monday by subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and other Republican members, have the slightest relation to the truth.

They're all elements of a campaign among Republicans and right-wingers aimed at portraying Fauci, 83, who retired from NIAID in December 2022, as “a comic book supervillain,” in the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin ( D-Md.).

Why are they doing this? One answer must be that conspirators always need a target to attack in order to attract followers.

At the heart of this campaign is the Republican belief that COVID escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

Since there is absolutely no evidence to support this theory that anyone has come up with yet, Plan B was to smear everyone in the line of fire. Unfortunately for Fauci, he is the designated “it.”

As I have reported many times, scientific evidence, according to renowned scientists who have studied the origins of COVID, indicates that it is overwhelmingly more likely that COVID reached humans in the same way that most viruses do, such as spillover from wildlife – in this case through a booming trade in China in animals susceptible to the virus.

Let's look at the specific rabbit holes the subcommittee dug into to smear Fauci, as detailed during Monday's 3½-hour congressional hearing and during a 15-hour subcommittee questioning of Fauci in January: of which a transcription used to be released this weekend together with a memo that misrepresented his answers and took the cherry on top.

Committee members are fixated on the idea that Fauci “suppressed” discussion of the possibility of a lab leak. Why would he do that? Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas) proposed an answer.

“It is clear to everyone,” he said, “that you and your organization, NIH, had much to lose if the American people discovered that COVID-19 most likely leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and that you . .. actually funded this research.”

The problem with that is that, first of all, Fauci has professed an open mind about the origins of the pandemic to this day.

In fact, documentary evidence in the subcommittee's possession shows that in the early days of the pandemic – January and February 2020 – scientists saw features of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused COVID that they did not recognize as came from nature – he urged them by email to report their concerns, if validated, to “the appropriate authorities,” meaning the FBI in the US and MI-5 in Britain.

“It is inconceivable,” Fauci said in his opening statement to the subcommittee, “that anyone reading this email could conclude that I was trying to 'cover up' the possibility of a laboratory leak. “I called for a quick and thorough investigation of the data and a fully transparent process.”

Coincidentally, further scientific research convinced scientists that “any kind of laboratory scenario” was not “plausible” because they reported in Nature in March 2020. Their conclusion has held up over time.

The subcommittee's Republicans went out of their way to refute the idea that the lab leak hypothesis is a “conspiracy theory.” Fauci played along to some extent. He acknowledged that speculation about a lab leak is not itself a conspiracy theory, but neither are the elaborations many of its proponents have made of it.

“What a conspiracy theory is is the kind of distortions of that particular subject, like, it was a lab leak and I was dropped into the CIA like Jason Bourne and told the CIA that they weren't actually allowed to talk about a lab leak,” he said. “That's a conspiracy.”

The members spent an inordinate amount of time on Monday asking whether Fauci's institute was funding so-called Gain of Function experiments in China, so a brief primer on the matter is in order.

“Gain of Function” has become something of a shibboleth for lab leak proponents, just as “critical race theory” and ESG have become dog whistles for activists seeking to undermine the public education system and environmental and social concerns for investors, respectively — in this case, the term has a uniquely sinister connotation.

In general, however, it refers to laboratory work that augments a microbe's natural properties to facilitate experimental research or achieve a necessary goal, such as getting microbes to produce a flu vaccine or bacteria to produce artificial insulin.

From 2014 to 2017, the US suspended gain-of-function experiments to develop a standard study that could yield “potential pandemic pathogens.” The lab leak camp claims that NIAID funded experiments that gave a virus in the Chinese laboratory the characteristics needed to make it contagious to humans.

The work that NIAID funded in China was analyzed according to that standard, and the NIH determined that it did not fall into that category, as Fauci has previously testified. The subcommittee bombarded Fauci with questions aimed at eliciting an acknowledgment that the NIAID-funded work qualified under the broad pre-2017 definition, but he made clear — and is supported by the public data — that the work did not fall into that category fell.

Much of the hearing was devoted to trivialities. Republicans blamed Fauci for imposing a regulation on Americans specifying that effective social distancing required six feet of distance between individuals. The GOP members claim and cited that no scientific research validates a six-foot standard a peer-reviewed article from 2020 as confirmation.

However, this claim is self-refuting; the paper actually says that this could be as much as 6 feet under certain circumstances are not enough. When asked about the issue in January, Fauci explained that coughing, sneezing, wind and other conditions can affect the effectiveness of social distancing at any distance. At that point, his questioner, GOP consultant Mitch Benzine, acknowledged: “I didn't really think about that, I guess.” But Republicans nevertheless continued to talk endlessly about the issue on Monday.

In any case, Fauci has never had the authority to impose public health mandates — whether masks, social distancing, vaccination or anything else. These were a product of state and local policy decisions. To the extent they relied on government recommendations, they came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a government agency with which Fauci had no official connection.

The basic theme of Monday's hearing was that Fauci should be blamed, even pilloried, for doing the best anyone could in dealing with a virus no one had seen before, with means of transmission already were not understood for months or more and therapies that lasted. more than a year to find out.

It is Fauci's burden that ignorant and irresponsible politicians and their minions have chosen to point their guns at him, for reasons that remain unclear.

“There has been everything from harassment via emails, text messages and letters from myself, my wife and my three daughters,” he said. “There have been credible death threats that have led to the arrest of two individuals, and 'credible death threats' means someone who was clearly on his way to kill me. It requires me to have protective services almost all the time.”

Is this how we want to treat our most dedicated public servants – by vilifying them so much that promising scientists choose not to put themselves in the line of fire by entering the field of public health?

At the end of the hearing, Wenstrup said his panel's “goal is to take a good look at the facts.” But on Monday, few “facts” were presented, only misinformation and character assassination.

Was that really the goal? There are no signs that Republicans have learned anything from their three-and-a-half-hour inquisition. In January, Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) tweeted during Fauci's questioning: “While many lost their loved ones, their businesses and livelihoods, Dr. Fauci millions and enjoyed the media attention. It was his most successful year.”

On Monday I asked Cloud if he still believed that. He replied: “I support this tweet 100%. Dr. Fauci received more money and critical media attention than he had ever received in his life, and if you can't tell that he enjoyed (and contributed to) both, that's on you.”

Let's give Fauci the final say on that. In January, he lamented that in 2020 he “became the number one villain of extremists among the population,” making it “one of the worst years of my life.” Showing the tweet, he commented, “Did a congressman tweet that?” When he was told, “Yes.”

He simply replied, “Jesus.”

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