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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Anthony Fauci accused each other of lying at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, amid yet another clash over whether the National Institutes of Health funded risky "gain-of-function" research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Why it matters: It was a remarkable exchange between the U.S. government's top infectious diseases expert and a prominent Republican senator — an outburst that followed more than a year of tensions and two previous confrontations in hearings related to COVID-19.

Context: At issue is the definition of "gain-of-function" research, which involves purposefully enhancing pathogens in a lab to better understand them.

  • China's Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located just miles from the market where the first COVID-19 outbreak was detected, previously received funding from Fauci's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance.
  • The EcoHealth grant partially funded research at WIV that involved analyzing bat specimens collected from caves in China to study their potential for infecting humans.
  • Shi Zhengli, a lead researcher at WIV, was known from public documents to be conducting gain-of-function experiments, according to the Washington Post. Fauci has denied that the research that the NIH funded through the EcoHealth grant qualifies as gain-of-function.

Why it matters: Paul and other Republicans have suggested that if the coronavirus indeed originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which the U.S. intelligence community is investigating, then Fauci and other U.S. health officials bear responsibility for the pandemic.

The exchange:

  • PAUL: "This research matches — indeed it epitomizes — the definition of gain-of-function research done entirely in Wuhan, for which there was supposed to be a federal pause. Dr. Fauci, knowing that it is a crime to lie to Congress, do you wish to retract your statement of May 11 where you claimed that the NIH never funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan?"
  • FAUCI: "Senator Paul, I have never lied before the Congress, and I do not retract that statement. This paper that you are referring to was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain-of-function."
  • PAUL: "You take an animal virus and you increase its transmissibility to humans, you're saying that's not gain-of-function?"
  • FAUCI: "That is correct. And Senator Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly. And I want to say that officially. You do not know what you are talking about."

...

  • PAUL: "All of the evidence is pointing that it came from the lab. There will be responsibility for those who funded the lab, including yourself."
  • FAUCI: "I totally resent the lie you are now propagating, senator. ... You are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals. I totally resent that and if anybody is lying here, senator, it is you."

Go deeper: The two-sided risks of lab-enhanced viruses

Go deeper

Jul 19, 2021 - World

Vaccine boosters in rich countries risk longer wait in poorer nations

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The rapid spread of the Delta variant around the rich world has injected increased urgency into the debate around booster shots, but the World Health Organization and public health experts are trying to keep the focus on getting vaccines to those who don’t yet have access.

Why it matters: Israel last week became the first country to offer boosters to people with weak immune systems, and Pfizer is pushing for rapid approval of boosters in the U.S., citing preliminary data that suggests immunity may begin to wane after six months.

Bezos beats Branson in space billionaires' battle for attention

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Imtiyaz Shaikh (Anadolu Agency), Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jeff Bezos' flight into space generated more interest from the public than Richard Branson's, and both billionaires overshadowed their respective space companies.

Why it matters: Data shows an outsized public interest in the personalities at the center of the space trips, compared to the companies behind them — which could reinforce public suspicion that the ventures were partly vanity plays.

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