WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci has been a political lightning rod since the early days of the pandemic, lionized by the left and villainized by the right.
But with the release of a trove of Fauci’s emails this past week, Republicans’ political attacks on the nation’s top government infectious-diseases expert have gone into overdrive.
On conservative news channels, President Joe Biden’s pandemic adviser has been baselessly pilloried as a liar who misled the American people about the origins of COVID-19 to protect the Chinese government. There’s no evidence of wrongdoing, but Republican calls for his resignation have grown louder, as have demands for new investigations into the origins of the virus.
“Given what we know now, I don’t know how anyone can have confidence that he should remain in a position of public trust and authority,” said Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a potential presidential hopeful who is calling for Fauci’s resignation and a full congressional inquiry.
The political moves by Republicans represent a new effort to find a reliable foil in the first few months of the Biden administration, as they have struggled to turn public sentiment against the new president. So far, Biden has enjoyed widespread job approval, buoyed by the public’s broad backing of his handling of the pandemic, which 71% of Americans support, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
Fauci, who has a security detail because of ongoing threats and who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, has repeatedly defended his work, saying he received thousands of emails and has never ruled out any theory.
“I still believe the most likely origin is from an animal species to a human, but I keep an absolutely open mind that if there may be other origins of that, there may be another reason, it could have been a lab leak,” Fauci said Thursday on CNN.
The doctor’s newly released emails, which span the early days of the pandemic and were obtained by BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post, show no evidence of any kind of coverup about the origin of the virus. Indeed, many of the discussions reflect the science at the time. But Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have seized on the emails as proof of a conspiracy to obscure the source of the virus.
In one email, from Feb. 1 of last year, Kristian Andersen, a researcher at the Scripps Research Institute, wrote to Fauci, the longtime director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about ongoing efforts to decipher the origin of the novel coronavirus.
At the time, the lab leak hypothesis was largely dismissed by experts. It has recently gained traction, though the origins of the virus remain unknown.
“The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered,” Andersen wrote. He said he and his colleagues “all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory. But,” he added, “we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change.”
By the next month, it turned out, they had. He and his colleagues published an article in Nature Medicine in which they concluded that it was “improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like Coronavirus.”