Takeaways from Fauci’s testimony at contentious House hearing on Covid-19 pandemic

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified on Monday at a House subcommittee hearing about the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the origins of the virus.

The hearing was Fauci’s first public testimony on Capitol Hill since his retirement from government service. It turned contentious at times as Republicans grilled Fauci over a wide range of topics, including the basis for public health recommendations during the pandemic and email use by public health officials.

Here are key takeaways from the hearing:

US still needs to close communication gaps to be better prepared for next pandemic

Fauci said there are still some things the US needs to work on to be more prepared for another pandemic in the aftermath of Covid-19, saying in “some respects” the country is better prepared to deal with a health crisis than in 2020, “but in others, I am still disappointed.”

One thing that he hopes the US will do better moving forward is tightening communication between the federal response and local public health officials.

Fauci said there was a “disconnect between the health-care system and the public health system” during Covid-19 in the US. Specifically, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could not demand information from local agencies, which caused a lag in sharing data.

“We were at a disadvantage,” Fauci said, adding that the CDC is working on ways to fix this pain point.

Republicans grill Fauci over public health official’s use of email

Fauci testified Monday that he has not used his personal email to conduct business, and he was not aware before a congressional investigation that a former senior adviser at the National Institutes of Health had used unofficial email.

“What you saw, I believe, with Dr. Morens was an aberrancy and an outlier,” Fauci testified on Monday, referring to a former senior adviser at NIH. “The individuals at the NIH and NIAID are a very committed group of individuals and this one instance that you point out is an aberrancy and an outlier.”

The House Oversight select subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic previously released a series of private emails that Republicans argue show that some NIH officials deleted emails and tried to get around requirements to disclose information through public records laws.

In a memo published at the end of May, committee members said Dr. David Morens, a former senior adviser to Fauci, engaged in “nefarious behavior.” Fauci said he had worked on research publications with Morens in his role as a senior adviser, but Morens’ role did not include advising Fauci on any department policy.

The committee points to email that Morens sent another colleague that suggests he would send email to Fauci’s private account and “there is no worry about FOIAs.” FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act, the law that gives the public the right to obtain federal records, including emails sent within government agencies. Morens’ email goes on to say that he can also hand information to Fauci to avoid it being a part of the public record.

Fauci testifies about possible origins of virus that caused Covid-19

In Fauci’s testimony, he addressed what he said were “certain issues that have been seriously distorted concerning me,” particularly around the origin of the virus that led to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fauci testified that in early 2020, he was informed through phone calls with two scientists — Jeremy Farrar, then the director of the Wellcome Trust in the UK and Kristian Andersen, a scientist at Scripps Research — that they and others were concerned that the virus that causes Covid-19 could have been manipulated in the lab. The day after those calls, Fauci said he participated in a conference call with several international virologists to discuss manipulation in the lab or possible spillover from animals to humans. He characterized the discussion as “lively,” with arguments on both sides. Fauci said he did not try to steer the discussion in any direction.

Fauci said the virologists on the joint call decided to more carefully examine the genomic sequence and after further examination, and said, “several who at first were concerned about lab manipulation became convinced that the virus was not deliberately manipulated.” Scientists found the most likely scenario, Fauci said, was a virus that transferred from an animal to a human, “although they still kept an open mind.”

“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,” Fauci said, noting he had no input into the content on a paper published in March 2020 that discussed the possible origins of the virus.

Some of the world’s leading scientists have investigated the origins of the virus, including a committee of experts from the World Health Organization. Most scientists believe that the virus spread from animals to humans in China. Some studies have also said that the theory that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, cannot be ruled out.

Most US intelligence agencies say the virus was not genetically engineered, but it is still not totally clear how the pandemic started. A US intelligence analysis released last year said either origin was possible, and the community remains split on the issue. The US Department of Energy assessed last year that it had “low confidence” in the lab leak theory. No US federal agency believes that the virus that causes Covid-19 was created as a bioweapon.

“I cannot account nor can anyone account for other things that might be going on in China, which is the reason why I have always said and will say now, I keep an open mind as to what the origin is,” Fauci said Monday.

Fauci details threats he and his family have received

Fauci detailed the threats he received during his time as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, describing death threats against him and threats against his wife and daughters.

Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell asked Fauci to explain what some of the threats were and he replied: “Everything from harassments from emails, texts, letters of myself, my wife, my three daughters. There have been credible death threats leading to the arrest of two individuals – and credible death threats means someone who clearly was on their way to kill me. And it’s required my having protective services essentially all the time.”

Fauci said he feared that the threats against public health workers during the Covid-19 pandemic would serve as a “powerful disincentive” for the best and brightest candidates to take up the profession.

“They say to themselves, ‘I don’t want to go there. Why should I get involved in that?’” he said.

“They’re reluctant to put themselves and their family through what they see their colleagues being put through,” he testified.

The 6-foot social distance guideline came from the CDC, Fauci clarifies

Fauci clarified that the 6-foot guidance for social distancing given during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic did not come from him, but from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It actually came from the CDC. The CDC was responsible for those kinds of guidelines to schools, not me,” Fauci said.

Fauci, who repeated the guidance during the pandemic, once said that there was no science behind it — but he meant that there were no clinical trials to back it up.

“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,” Fauci said.

He added that he believed the CDC used studies about droplets years ago as reasoning for the 6-foot guidelines.

When the CDC first promoted the idea of 6-foot “social distancing” for people who had to be around others during the pandemic, scientists thought that larger contaminated droplets would fall out of the air quickly and couldn’t travel farther than 6 feet. At the time, the World Health Organization recommended that people keep a meter, or 3.3 feet, between them. But even as early as 2021, scientists were starting to understand that the coronavirus is airborne, meaning it could spread through droplets and aerosols, smaller particles that could travel even farther and float in the air.

That’s in large part why public health agencies emphasized the importance of people wearing masks to reduce the number of germs that could float in the air and make people sick.

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