Sen. Rand Paul and Dr. Anthony Fauci clashed once again during a Senate hearing Tuesday on efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, this time sparring over whether the National Institutes of Health funded risky “gain-of-function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
It is not the first time the two men have gotten into a heated back-and-forth during the course of the pandemic.
The latest exchange came during a hearing held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee when the Kentucky senator asked the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH and top adviser to President Joe Biden if the NIH supports funding the lab in Wuhan, claiming the agency had funded gain-of-function research at the institute in the past.
“Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect … the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute,” Fauci said.
Gain-of-function research occurs when scientists modify a pathogen to make it more deadly or transmissible in order to study it and better prepare for natural disease outbreaks. Some view the research approach as a way of developing strategies to fight quickly evolving pathogens that are a threat to public health, but others are concerned that human error could result in a lab-enhanced virus being accidentally released.
Paul continued to question Fauci over funding to the laboratory, claiming that the doctor was in favor of gain-of-function research.
“You are saying things that are not correct,” Fauci told Paul.
When the senator moved on, it was to ask if the infectious disease expert could “categorically say that the COVID-19 could not have occurred through serial passage in a laboratory?”
The unsubstantiated theory that COVID-19 originated in the Chinese lab has been frequently pushed by some, including President Donald Trump, since the start of the pandemic last year. But a joint report from the World Health Organization and China found it “extremely unlikely” that the virus emerged accidentally from a Chinese laboratory.
“I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I am fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China,” Fauci told Paul. “However, I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Fauci added later that he fully agreed with Paul that investigations should take place to determine where COVID-19 originated.
“But again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology no matter how many times you say it,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”
In an interview following the exchange with Paul, Fauci told PolitiFact that NIAID funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology through the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance after the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak caused by the SARS-CoV-1 virus.
“In a very minor collaboration, as part of a subcontract of a grant, we had a collaboration with some Chinese scientists,” Fauci said. “He conflated that … therefore we were involved in creating the virus, which is the most ridiculous, majestic leap I’ve ever heard of.”
Watch the full exchange below: