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Politics

Republicans grill Fauci about COVID-19 origins and pandemic response

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers grilled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former senior government adviser during the pandemic - grilled him about the origins of the coronavirus. It was a tense hearing. At times, it grew rancorous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: We should be recommending you to be prosecuted. You belong in prison, Dr. Fauci.

KELLY: That is Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene. And joining me now to distill the more than three hours of testimony from Dr. Fauci is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi there, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So this, today, marks the culmination of a long investigation led by House Republicans. Remind us what exactly they are trying to find out.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. In a nutshell, they're trying to establish whether COVID came from a lab or whether it came from nature. Now, I'd say the majority of scientists still believe this was an outbreak from bats, similar to the original SARS outbreak in 2003. But many other people, particularly on the political right, think it may have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

KELLY: Right. And as we have nodded to, this has been debated and discussed and argued over for a while now. Did they get at anything new in today's hearing?

BRUMFIEL: Not really. So here's the thing - the question of whether COVID came from a Chinese lab has gained traction in recent years. Some intelligence agencies here in the U.S. think it may have. But many House Republicans want to take things a step further. They want to prove not only COVID came from a Chinese lab, but that an American nonprofit was behind it and that it was funded by Fauci's agency, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Now, it's true a nonprofit was working on viruses at the lab, but Fauci denied that work caused the pandemic.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: It is molecularly impossible for those viruses to have evolved or been made into SARS-CoV-2.

BRUMFIEL: And I should say, this theory often paints Fauci as the supervillain behind it all - that he somehow engineered the virus while trying to cover it up. He denies that, of course. Here's an exchange with New York Republican Nicole Malliotakis.

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NICOLE MALLIOTAKIS: Today, you testified that you did not suppress the lab leak theory. Yet, in the past, you have said, quote, "I've heard these conspiracy theories..."

FAUCI: Actually, I've also been very, very clear that I don't think the concept of there being a lab leak is inherently a conspiracy theory. What is conspiracy is it was a lab leak, and I was parachuted into the CIA like Jason Bourne and told the CIA that they should really not be talking...

MALLIOTAKIS: OK.

FAUCI: ...About a lab leak.

BRUMFIEL: And Fauci also refuted other aspects of the super villain theory like he somehow profited from the pandemic.

KELLY: OK, so that is how Republicans spent this hearing. How about Democrats?

BRUMFIEL: Democrats spent a lot of time defending Fauci and praising him for his work. I think the ranking Democrat, Raul Ruiz of California, really summed up their feeling about the hearing process.

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RAUL RUIZ: House Republicans have abdicated their responsibility to objectively examine how COVID-19 came to be and instead weaponized concern about a lab-related origin to fuel sentiment against our nation's scientists and public health officials for partisan gain.

BRUMFIEL: Fauci's now 83, retired, and he told the committee that he and his family still get death threats.

KELLY: Geoff, the pandemic, as you know, started - what? - four or five years ago? Just remind us briefly - why does it still matter to figure out where it came from?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there's a lot at stake here. Lab origins means lab safety is in need of an overhaul, and there's also a question of accountability with China. Natural origins means we need better disease surveillance, better rules for working with animals. So there's huge policy choices to be made here. There is just a lot at stake.

KELLY: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Politics
Geoff Brumfiel
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.