Jun 4, 2024 - Health

Fauci's raucous Hill return adds to scrutiny on NIH

Photo of Anthony Fauci next to a screen with Jim Jordan on it.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Anthony Fauci's return to Capitol Hill on Monday combined the attention-grabbing partisan infighting of the COVID era with recent, more intense bipartisan scrutiny of the National Institutes of Health, where he presided for a half-century.

Why it matters: Fauci faced sharp questioning about the disclosure that one of his top aides used a personal email address to avoid government oversight and renewed questions about whether NIH-funded research somehow gave rise to the virus.

Driving the news: Fauci denied using private emails to discuss government business during the pandemic and didn't reveal any communications with former aide David Morens, who wrote in an email exchange with a research nonprofit that Fauci's personal account could be used to skirt federal disclosure rules.

  • He also asserted that NIH did not fund gain-of-function research, based on the regulatory research definition.
  • Regarding studies on coronaviruses that NIH funded with the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance in China, Fauci said it was "molecularly impossible" they could have evolved into the virus that causes COVID.

Still, Republicans on the House's Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic pressed Fauci on whether he influenced research on COVID's origins and steered findings away from the theory the virus originated from a lab leak.

  • "Americans were aggressively bullied, shamed and silenced for merely questioning or debating issues such as social distancing, masks, vaccines or the origins of COVID," said committee chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio).

Zoom out: It was Fauci's first appearance on Capitol Hill since 2022, when he ended a decades-long government career that saw him emerge as the public face of the federal government's efforts to combat COVID.

  • He clashed bitterly with many of the Republicans on the panel and faced a particularly hostile encounter with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who refused to address Fauci as "doctor" and said he should be jailed.

The exchanges appeared a bit much for Wenstrup, who's trying to refocus the panel's attention on NIH's work during the pandemic.

  • Specifically, he's zeroed in on its funding of nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, whose backing of studies on bat coronaviruses in China put it at the center of the debate over the pandemic's origins.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services suspended funding to EcoHealth last month over a series of reporting lapses on the research.

Democrats, meanwhile, came to Fauci's defense, emphasizing his years of experience responding to outbreaks and pointing to multiple death threats that he'd received in connection with the pandemic response.

  • Fauci appeared emotional at one point when asked about the harassment he and his family have faced.
  • "There have been everything from harassments by emails, texts, letters of myself, my wife, my three daughters," Fauci said in response to a question from Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.).
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