Opinion: The Fauci witch hunt intensifies while the next threat looms


Editor’s Note: Kent Sepkowitz is a physician and infectious disease expert at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Anyone eager to re-experience the acrimony, lunacy and danger of the early Covid-19 pandemic might want to watch a few hours of Monday’s hearing of the House Oversight Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Kent Sepkowitz - Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer CenterKent Sepkowitz - Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Kent Sepkowitz – Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Members spent much of the day questioning Dr. Anthony Fauci, formerly head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and, among many other government roles, former chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden on Covid-19. The subcommittee previously had grilled Fauci during two days of closed-door testimony in January.

In their announcement for the hearing, the Republican majority made it clear that, rather than a standard after-action review to glean lessons learned as a means to inform the next public health crisis, their goal was to place Fauci once again onto the hot seat. As the subcommittee chairman, Dr. Brad Wenstrup, who is a podiatrist, said, the hearing was intended, among other things, to review Fauci “promoting singular, questionable narratives about the origins of Covid-19.”

During the long and exasperating hearing (I watched more than 3 hours), Republicans seemed hellbent on connecting US support of virus research that began in the Obama administration with the origin of the 2019 Covid-19 pandemic. Fauci was peppered repeatedly by questions that tried to hint at a supposedly nefarious role played by the US and/or Fauci himself. The still unsettled back story of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) apparently is viewed as a promising topic for political gain.

Many articles already have been written and arguments posited on this issue. In one corner is the group who, like me, regard the pandemic as another natural occurrence resulting from standard-issue gene swapping across animals and people — back and forth until, accidentally, a really bad strain of the virus is unintentionally created.

The other argument, which admittedly has an irresistible James Bond feel if much less credibility, views the virus as a man-made construct. Maybe the bad guys (the Chinese, in this movie script) with evil intention somehow deliberately hit a jackpot of evilness by creating a modern doomsday virus. For this theory there are two sub-versions: one where the bad guys were just being bad and did a bad thing, and the other where US funds were part of the evil plan as the money was used (advertently or inadvertently) to kickstart the entire evil program back in 2014 and 2015.

Most of the hearing was spent trying to link the pandemic’s origin to a small National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant given to the New York-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, which, as planned, gave the funds to the Wuhan lab to study coronaviruses in bats. No one contests that this occurred. The plot thickens (or, in my view, thins) when genetic fingerprint evidence is rolled out.

The Republicans seem convinced that the grant advertently or inadvertently led to the doomsday virus by supporting “gain of function” research. This term refers to work exploring the consequences of playing with genetic material to add a new or enhanced ability to an organism. Indeed, “gain of function” was a frequently heard term at the hearing, a new meme of sorts spoken with practiced familiarity by people who knew nothing of this field of research until recently.

As hearing listeners learned, “gain of function” has come to mean different things to different people. Viewed one way, an experiment that manipulates the genetic structure of a virus or bacteria or plant or animal might be viewed as “gain of function” research. To impose heavy regulation onto such routine business would grind all research to a halt. To prevent this from happening, the NIH has gone through the painstaking work of defining what it means exactly from a narrow regulatory perspective that promises safety for the public through appropriate levels of scrutiny.

One of Fauci’s explanations for why the US-funded Wuhan work was not “gain of function” research was simple: The genetic fingerprint of the Chinese bat coronavirus studied with US dollars was far too distant a corona-cousin to SARS-CoV-2 to make sequential sinister trial-and-error manipulation a plausible explanation. The fingerprint of the pandemic strain is simply too dissimilar to the bat strain.

As Fauci said, the theory of lab origin connected to NIH funding is “molecularly impossible.”

Importantly, this conclusion relies on insights from experts in the field of phylogenetics of viral evolution, which was used heavily to track the pandemic strain. The science is mature and reliable, and places the conclusion beyond reasonable doubt for those who believe in science.

As Fauci explained, this does not mean that other scientists in Wuhan using other funds might have taken other coronavirus strains and tweaked and tickled the genetic make-up to create the disaster (seems very implausible to me, but who knows?). “None of us can know everything that’s going on in China, or in Wuhan… I keep an open mind as to what the origin is,” Fauci told lawmakers. But there is no way that one could link this to the US, to the NIH or to Fauci.

The House subcommittee’s 15-month dragnet investigation into thousands of emails and documents also turned up apparently sketchy practices by a couple of scientists who did have a relationship with some research performed in Wuhan. One person, Dr. David Morens, worked on academic projects with Fauci and the other, Dr. Peter Daszak, a colleague of Morens, led the EcoHealth Alliance and worked with the Wuhan lab. Preliminarily, they appear to have used personal email for government work in non-compliance with policy and, worse, possibly developed some reprehensible work-arounds for dodging oversight of their work such as deleting messages. None of this, though, relates to the US funds or the NIH-funded research or Fauci.

I suspect there will be further congressional investigation of Morens and Daszak that will create more headlines. In the meantime, as the committee continues to dither about more emails, these lawmakers will not bother to try to make the public safer.

Of course, even if they were hard at work updating and optimizing the governmental response to a pandemic, there would be no guarantee that a future administration will follow the cumulative wisdom of experts. As we learned in the early days of the Covid-19, then-President Donald Trump did not consult the “pandemic playbook” developed by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

But gee whiz, the Covid subcommittee could at least try. As Fauci said — hopefully — about the hearing, “The reason we are here is [to determine] how can we do better next time.” Unfortunately, this was a path not taken in this subcommittee hearing.

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