Rand Paul and Anthony Fauci argue over theories about COVID-19’s origin

Sen. Rand Paul started another argument with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious diseases expert, at a new congressional hearing Tuesday — this time over unproven conjecture about how COVID-19 originated.

Theories have circulated throughout the pandemic about whether COVID-19 sprouted in a lab and was accidentally or purposefully released, but the general consensus among scientists is that the dangerous virus probably spread naturally by making the jump from animals to people.

However, Paul harped on speculation that the virus may have come from a lab in Wuhan, China, as he sharply questioned Fauci — a target of conservative politicians and pundits — when the scientist appeared before a Senate committee Tuesday morning.

“Dr. Fauci, we don’t know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally, but we should want to know,” Paul began. “Three million people have died from this pandemic, and that should cause us to explore all possibilities.”

Senators listen as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks remotely during a virtual Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing, Tuesday, May 12, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Seated from left are Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., center, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. (Win McNamee/Pool via AP)

“Instead, government authorities — self-interested in continuing ‘gain of function’ research — say there’s nothing to see here,” he continued. “‘Gain of function’ research, as you know, is juicing up naturally occurring animal viruses to infect humans.”

“To arrive at the truth, the U.S. government should admit that the Wuhan Virology Institute was experimenting to enhance the coronavirus’s ability to infect humans,” the senator said, echoing speculation put forth in conservative media.

Paul claimed the National Institutes of Health, for which Fauci works, funded “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and asked Fauci if he still supports NIH funding for that laboratory.

Fauci pushed back, telling the Kentucky Republican he was wrong.

“Sen. Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect,” Fauci told him, and went on to say the NIH has not funded “gain of function” research conducted at that institute in China.

Fauci did defend the NIH’s funding of other research on viruses there, citing the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s that originated in bats.

“It would have been irresponsible of us if we did not investigate the bat viruses and the serology to see who might have been infected in China,” Fauci said.

Paul interjected: “Or perhaps it would be irresponsible to send it to the Chinese government that we may not be able to trust with this knowledge and with (these) incredibly dangerous viruses.”

“Government scientists like yourself who favor ‘gain of function’ research…” Paul started to continue, before Fauci interrupted him.

“I don’t favor ‘gain of function’ research in China. You are saying things that are not correct,” Fauci said.

Paul threw out another question, asking Fauci if he’d categorically say COVID-19 couldn’t have originated in a lab, to which Fauci — the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — replied:

“I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I’m fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China. However, I will repeat again: The NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded ‘gain of function’ research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Questions remain about the origins of COVID-19, also sometimes referred to as SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes that disease. USA TODAY reported in January:

“SARS-CoV-2 shares 96% of its genetic material with a sample of coronavirus taken in 2013 in intermediate horseshoe bats from Yunnan province in China, which suggests the Yunnan virus is its ancestor. How the virus traveled the 1,200 miles from Yunnan to Wuhan remains unknown.”

“Despite a persistent conspiracy theory that SARS-CoV-2 was developed in a lab, perhaps an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, there’s no evidence to support the claim and plenty to counter it,” USA TODAY also reported.

PolitiFact, a well-known fact-checking news organization, rated a claim in February that COVID-19’s creation was tied to research Fauci funded as “false.”

“Although the NIH did fund a project at the Wuhan lab, there’s no proof that the coronavirus was bioengineered,” PolitiFact reported.

A $3.4 million NIH grant went to a U.S.-based organization called EcoHealth Alliance in 2014, PolitiFact said, and EcoHealth Alliance hired the Wuhan Virology Institute “to conduct genetic analyses of bat coronaviruses collected in Yunnan province, about 800 miles southwest of Wuhan.”

“Gain-of-function research is a controversial form of study that involves boosting the infectivity and lethality of a pathogen. … All parties involved in the grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology have denied that it involved gain-of-function research,” PolitiFact reported. “… MIT biologist Kevin Esvelt reviewed a paper that appears to have been published with financial assistance from the grant. According to Esvelt, certain techniques that the researchers used seemed to meet the definition of gain-of-function research.”

However, Esvelt said the work reported in that paper “definitely did NOT lead to the creation” of COVID-19.

Paul criticized ‘gain of function’ research as a scientific enterprise at Tuesday’s Senate hearing, telling Fauci: “You’re fooling with Mother Nature here.”

Fauci once again told the senator: “I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from. But again: We have not funded ‘gain of function’ research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, no matter how many times you say it.”

This isn’t the first time Paul and Fauci have publicly clashed.

At another congressional hearing in March, for example, Paul and Fauci argued over the need to wear masks now that coronavirus vaccines are available.

Their back-and-forth that day got shared a lot on social media and in the news.

On Monday, Paul hinted he planned to get into another heated exchange with Fauci when he tweeted: “Looking forward to tomorrow’s hearing, Dr. Fauci!”

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26.

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