It has grown as tiresome as it is predictable; the Trump-led GOP savaging of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Tiresome, because character assassination is a tactic as old as politics itself, and predictable because former President Trump and his sycophants fling this sort of rot with comlpete abandon whenever they think it serves their interests.
Dr. Fauci has been the face and voice of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has long been internationally recognized and rightfully treasured as a world-class leader in the fight against deadly viral contagions. His pronouncements regarding COVID-19 have generally been level-headed and wise, although in the early days of the public health emergency, he was cautious when, in retrospect, he might have been much more aggressive. Then again hindsight is invariably 20/20.
Public health authorities knew around January 1st, 2020 that we were facing a previously unknown viral pathogen, but it was not immediately clear just how virulent or dangerous the virus would be. The first confirmed case was diagnosed in the United States on January 21st, last year. The first confirmed coronavirus death outside of China was reported on February 2, 2020. While the United States declared a public health emergency on February 3rd last year, Dr. Fauci was hesitant to immediately urge the nationwide uniform wearing of masks or to urge closing down the country. At that point in time, no deaths had been reported in the United States and only one death outside of China. Dr. Fauci waited until additional data justified the more stringent measures that were ultimately mandated throughout much of the country.
He can, arguably, be faulted for not being more aggressive as soon as we knew that a previously unseen virus was loose and traveling. Dr. Fauci, instead, followed the science as the evolving evidence emerged, and the public health imperatives became clear. There is always a need to adjust and reassess response to a public health threat as the public health reality reveals itself, especially when the response could have a potentially draconian impact on the nation. And that is exactly what Dr. Fauci did.
His counsel and pronouncements became more severe as the severity of the pandemic began to emerge. He can be reasonably criticized for his early caution, but the venom with which Republican politicians and right-wing commentators are attacking him is shameful. They are desperate to turn attention away from the buffoonery of former President Trump’s Coronavirus briefings, as well as his “fight like hell” pep rally preceding the January 6th attack on the Capitol. Given that the former President now leads their party, the Republican urgency of shifting the Coronavirus political fallout to Dr. Fauci is as predictable as it is reprehensible.
At no time has Dr. Fauci been a liar or a fraud, as his Republican detractors now shamefully allege. And let’s not pretend that former president Trump would have stood for anything more draconian when the deaths from COVID-19 were still being measured in the dozens. True, Dr. Fauci was not yet ready to counsel closing down the country in mid-march last year when we had under fifty confirmed deaths. Still, he wasn’t counseling, “I give it two weeks,” or that, “I want to be opened up and raring to go by Easter,” as former President Trump was absurdly jawboning to the nation.
Two major Republican talking points have emerged in the last couple of weeks. One is that a cache of 3,000 Fauci emails that have been made public provide the smoking gun the Republicans were counting on to defame Dr. Fauci. The emails turned out not to be a smoking gun; nor was there anything remotely nefarious in them.
The other Republican talking point is the possibility that COVID-19 leaked from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, and that Dr. Fauci may have approved NIH funding for dangerous Gain of Function (GOF) research at the Wuhan Institute. GOF pertains to the alteration of a virus’s genome in order to study the potential for the evolution of more dangerous future viral outbreaks, and how best to plan to fight such an eventuality.
Readers of this column will recall that I wrote rather extensively about the feasibility of a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute on May 15th. I credited a report written by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which made a case that such a catastrophic blunder was both plausible and, perhaps, probable. Since then, many news articles have been published focusing on the possibility of a lab leak in Wuhan.
During the past month many leading scientists, including Dr. Fauci, have called for further investigation of a possible lab-leak origin. Dr. Robert Redfield, the former Director of the Center for Disease Control has long suspected a laboratory failure as the culprit. It is also true that most scientists, including Dr. Fauci, have in the past referred to the lab-leak possibility as “extremely unlikely.” That’s because the natural origin of viruses that effect humans are generally species-jumping pathogens. The “very likely” culprit of the COVID-19 pandemic, then, was of natural origin.
Nonetheless, as I wrote a month ago, ruling out a lab-leak origin without thoroughly researching that possibility is bad science, just as concluding that COVID-19 could have only originated from natural viral evolution is bad science. While Wade’s report in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists states that an examination of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 strongly suggests laboratory manipulation, other prominent scientists strongly disagree. Among them is prominent physicist Ethan Siegel who refers to the Wade report as “an error-filled, misleading piece promoting this nonsense” and says “the science tells a different story.”
Other scientists who, at one time, were leaning toward a lab-leak origin have, after further investigation, determined that natural evolution from an animal source was more likely. Dr. Kristian Andersen, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, has concluded, “no credible evidence has been presented to support the hypothesis that the virus was engineered in, or leaked from, a lab — such statements are based on pure speculation.”
Tulane University Virologist, Dr. Robert Garry, says, “there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) or an immediate progenitor virus existed in any laboratory before the pandemic. The only change since we wrote our manuscript on the Proximal Origins of SARS-CoV-2 is that I now consider any of the lab leak hypotheses to be extremely unlikely.”
However, Senator Rand Paul and other Republicans are now accusing Dr. Fauci of funding Gain of Function Research at Wuhan. That really isn’t true, although money is, of course, fungible. A grant funded by the National Institutes of Health, and reviewed by the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Dr. Fauci directs, was awarded to Dr. Ralph Baric, a prominent and well-respected American virologist at the University of North Carolina to study bat-borne coronaviruses. A portion of the work undertaken in that grant was subcontracted to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Wuhan Institute is, in fact, the world’s leading research center studying such bat-borne viruses.
The accusation that Dr. Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 and the horrible toll it has taken, as the likes of Senators Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others are making, is a cheap calumnious slur.
Last October, former President Trump claimed that Dr. Fauci was a disaster and that Dr. Fauci and the nation’s public health officials were idiots. He claimed that if Dr. Fauci was in charge more than a half a million people would be dead in the United States. But Dr. Fauci was never in charge. President Trump was, and, sadly, we now have well over 600,000 people dead in the United States.
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