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Fauci testifies about COVID pandemic response at heated House hearing

Fauci testifies on COVID-19 origins
Fauci testifies before House panel on COVID-19 origins and federal response 04:17

Washington — Dr. Anthony Fauci testified on Monday before a Republican-led House panel investigating the origins of COVID-19 and the government's pandemic response, in a widely anticipated hearing where the intense partisan divide over the pandemic was once again on display. 

The hearing marked Fauci's first public appearance on Capitol Hill since leaving government in 2022, where he served as the chief medical advisor to President Biden and as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Fauci, who was revered by the left and denigrated by the right during the pandemic, was grilled by Republicans on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, while Democrats came to his aid, decrying what they saw as a politically motivated effort to denigrate him.

Dr. Anthony Fauci testifies during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on Capitol Hill on June 3, 2024.
Dr. Anthony Fauci testifies during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on Capitol Hill on June 3, 2024. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, the committee released transcripts from a closed-door interview conducted with Fauci in January that it said has been a "critical component" of the committee's investigations into the origins of the virus, government policies during the pandemic and improvements to the U.S. public health system. The interview lasted 14 hours over the course of two days. The panel's chairman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, told CBS News that the interview and the exchanges were cordial and professional.

GOP committee staff concluded in a memo of key takeaways that the "lab leak theory" about where the virus originated is "not a conspiracy theory," pointing to comments from Fauci during the interview that it "could be a lab leak or it could be a natural occurrence," though he noted that he believes the evidence he's seen suggests to him that it's more likely a natural occurrence. 

The memo also claimed that certain pandemic policies lacked supporting scientific evidence, like the guidance to maintain a six-foot distance from others, vaccine mandates and masks for children. 

The Fauci hearing 

Wenstrup thanked Fauci at the outset of Monday's hearing for his "willing cooperation," citing his voluntary appearance at the January interview and at Monday's hearing. 

"Beginning early in 2020, you became the figurehead of public health," Wenstrup said in his opening remarks. "Americans from coast to coast and beyond listened to your words, and this is where I think we could have done better … We should have been more precise, we should have used words and phrases that are accurate and not misleading. And we should have been honest, especially about what we didn't know." 

The hearing quickly became more serious, as the committee chair questioned alleged misconduct that occurred under Fauci's leadership, claiming he allowed his office to be "unaccountable to the American people."

Last week, committee Republicans demanded Fauci turn over some personal emails and questioned whether he had been communicating about official government work on his private accounts. A senior adviser to Fauci, Dr. David Morens, faced tough questioning from the panel in May over emails suggesting that he may have been circumventing federal Freedom of Information Act rules by using a "secret back channel" with Fauci.

"We have seen officials from your office, in their own writing, discussing breaking federal law, deleting official records, and sharing private government information with grant recipients. The office you directed and those serving under your leadership chose to flout the law and bragged about it," Wenstrup said.

Fauci distanced himself from the investigation into Morens, saying they worked in different buildings on the National Institutes of Health's campus. Morens worked with him only on helping to write some scientific papers, Fauci said, and was not an adviser to him on "institute policy or other substantive issues."

"Let me state for the record, to the best of my knowledge, I have never conducted official business using my personal email," Fauci told the committee.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is sworn in before testifying before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic at the Rayburn House Office Building on June 3, 2024, in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is sworn in before testifying before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic at the Rayburn House Office Building on June 3, 2024, in Washington, D.C.  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fauci said many of Morens' actions were wrong and ran afoul of agency policy. He also directly contradicted Morens' claim, quoted from an email to the EcoHealth Alliance, that Fauci was trying to protect the group. EcoHealth Alliance and its NIH funding has faced scrutiny since early during the pandemic over its ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

"I don't know where he got that, but that's not true," said Fauci.

Fauci repeated a defense he has given for years of NIH's funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology and EcoHealth Alliance. The agency's grant of $120,000 made up a small fraction of the institute's budget, Fauci said.

Fauci said the accusation that he influenced scientists working to determine whether the virus had originated in a lab by bribing them with grant money "is absolutely false and simply preposterous." He also pushed back on the claim that he tried to cover up that the virus originated in the lab, saying he has "always kept an open mind to the different possibilities." 

"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," he said, "but the one thing I know for sure is that the viruses that were funded by the NIH, phylogenetically, could not be the precursor of SARS-CoV-2."

California Rep. Raul Ruiz, the panel's top-ranking Democrat, blasted the subcommittee's Republican leadership for doing little to uncover new information on the origins of the virus or improve preparedness for future pandemics.

"After 15 months, the select subcommittee still does not possess a shred of evidence to substantiate these extreme allegations that Republicans have levied against Dr. Fauci for nearly four years," Ruiz said in his opening remarks.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, also came to Fauci's defense, saying House Republicans were using the subcommittee as a platform for "disinformation" about Fauci. 

"House Republicans now find themselves in the familiar position where their own investigation debunks their runaway political rhetoric," Raskin said. "The investigation of Dr. Fauci shows he is an honorable public servant who has devoted his entire career to the public health and the public interest — and he is not a comic book super villain."

Multiple Republican members questioned Fauci about the CDC's pandemic-era recommendations, like staying six feet apart for social distancing. Fauci acknowledged the precaution had not been studied in trials, and later turned out to be insufficient to stop spread of the virus through the air.

"We had discussions at the White House about that, we did, but this was the CDC's decision and was their decision to make and they made it," Fauci said.

The hearing intensified when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, began a line of questioning, launching a number of serious accusations against Fauci — including claiming that he had committed crimes against humanity — and prompting a dispute between lawmakers over decorum that briefly sidelined the hearing.

After Greene's remark, Rep. Robert Garcia, a California Democrat, called the session the "most insane hearing" he'd ever attended. 

Some Republicans on the panel, including Greene, also criticized Fauci over animal experiments funded by the agency and patent royalties earned by NIH scientists. Fauci defended the animal experiments as having been vetted by NIAID and said he had earned little in royalties, aside from $120 from an antibody invented years before the pandemic.

Republicans also revisited accusations that the NIH funded so-called "gain of function" research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, defined broadly as adding or enhancing the ability of germs. 

During a half-hour of questioning by committee staff at the tail end of the hearing, Fauci rejected the broader definition as encompassing a wide range of benign activities, including the way bacteria is modified to manufacture insulin.

"If you harken back to the original broad definition, it does nothing but confuse people," Fauci said, citing narrower definitions that health authorities have settled on for scrutinizing "pathogens with enhanced pandemic potential" research.

Fauci's testimony, along with the closed-door interview, are expected to be included among the subcommittee's final report on its investigation, which will come late this year.

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