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Fauci testimony likens lab-leak theory to vaccine microchips, warns against 'blaming the Chinese'

Plays down his expertise when asked to explain thank-you email for reviewing "proximal origin" drafts, can't cite specific research to justify his views on masks and hydroxychloroquine.

Published: December 12, 2022 4:52pm

Updated: December 12, 2022 11:15pm

Anthony Fauci's ability to dispassionately analyze evidence early in the COVID-19 pandemic apparently took a backseat to his fear of antagonizing China, judging by the career bureaucrat's deposition in a federal-Big Tech censorship lawsuit by Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general.

Fauci also played down his own expertise in some scientific areas while fumbling to defend his views in others, including the efficacy of masks and hydroxychloroquine.

The retiring 38-year director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases gave 174 "I don't recall" answers to Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer, often citing his busy schedule and thousands of emails he receives daily.

His deposition is part of the past month's flood of revealed communications and thinking on federal efforts to shape content moderation decisions by Twitter, Facebook and other tech platforms concerning COVID and in the runup to the 2020 election.

In his own deposition, FBI cyber agent Elvis Chan estimated that a sprawling Justice Department operation convinced platforms to remove purported disinformation about half the time

He's also the second confirmed federal official to use unofficial channels to communicate with platforms about content moderation. Chan said he used the encrypted messaging app Signal ahead of the 2020 election.

Because Signal is a "self-deleting app" that erases messages once they are read, and federal recordkeeping rules require their preservation, FBI headquarters told his San Francisco field office to take "screen shots" of its Signal messages to platforms, which were "burned ... to DVDs," Chan said. 

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the CDC previously showed that Twitter allowed an official to submit misinformation reports to its "Partner Support Portal" using a personal rather than agency Twitter account. That official was identified as media branch director Carol Crawford in a recent unredacted production obtained by America First Legal.

Sauer asked Fauci to explain an email from Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust science charity, about speculation that COVID might have leaked from a Chinese lab.

Fauci said they both worried about people "blaming the Chinese," which will "only will increase tensions and reduce cooperation which is necessary to really continue to pursue what actually happened." 

He called such social media discussions, which echoed what outside scientists were privately telling Fauci, "wild speculations" without evidence to back them at the time.

Even as he admitted an accidental leak "certainly is a possibility," Fauci compared those early 2020 discussions to claims that "Bill Gates and I put a chip in the [COVID] vaccine" to "monitor people."

He made another curious comparison when shown a Feb. 11, 2020 email from the director of NIAID's Center for Research in Diagnostics and Discovery. Ian Lipkin said "we have a nightmare of circumstantial evidence to assess" regarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology's (WIV) potential involvement in COVID's emergence.

"Whenever you have a situation when research is being done and you might have an outbreak [locally], then there will be always people who immediately jump on and say, 'Well, this could have had to do with the research,'" Fauci said. 

"I mean, we have been in situations where people questioned what's going on up in Frederick, Maryland," he added, referring to NIAID's integrated research facility, which is part of the National Interagency Biodefense Campus.

Fauci insisted that it would be "molecularly impossible" for the bat coronaviruses studied by WIV to become SARS-CoV-2 "even if people tried to manipulate them" through "experiments that were done and reported that were funded by" the National Institutes of Health.

He clarified that he's not an expert, however, when asked about his role in reviewing drafts of the "proximal origin" paper that purported to discredit the lab-leak theory. 

Researchers shared each new version with him and NIH Director Francis Collins. One thanked the federal duo for their "advice and leadership" during the drafting and sought their "comments, suggestions, or questions" on the accepted version before its publication in Nature Medicine.

"Did I look through it? Yes," Fauci told the AGs. "Did I fully understand the molecular virology of it? Unlikely, because I'm not an evolutionary virologist. Did I make any substantive comments on it? Unlikely, because that would not be my position since I'm not an evolutionary virologist."

He misattributed the "advice and leadership" email from Scripps Research Institute immunologist Kristian Andersen, who initially thought the virus looked "potentially engineered," to Farrar, the science funder. That phrase just shows the author is "being courteous," because Fauci had "very little to do with substantive input into the paper."

Fauci allowed that "I would not be surprised" if he did discuss the paper's conclusion with others — that "SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposely manipulated virus" — between receiving the accepted version March 8 and its online publication March 17.

While he distanced himself from Collins' April 14, 2020 email calling the lab-leak theory a "very destructive conspiracy" that NIH should "help us put down," Fauci said it was misinformation to claim "this clearly is something that was made by the Chinese ... because there's no evidence that that's the case."

One of Fauci's "I don't recall" moments concerned any personal role he might have played in getting a lab-leak claim removed from social media. 

"I would say it would be unlike me because ... my association with social media is almost zero. I don't have an account. I don't tweet" or "pay attention to social media," he said. "I wouldn't know how to access a tweet if you paid me."

Fauci added that "to my knowledge" his staff aren't trying to "influence social media in any way" aside from requests to remove accounts that are impersonating him, which is "troubling because they're doing things like selling masks" using his name.

He said he wasn't familiar with accounts parodying him, at least one of which Facebook removed immediately upon White House request.

Asked to explain the basis for his change of opinion on mask efficacy between February and April 2020, Fauci agreed that it was prompted by "new scientific evidence" but couldn't cite any specifically.

Studies questioning the protective power of masks "don't hold up" when they are scrutinized for "proper statistical analysis," Fauci claimed. "If information is clearly inadequate and statistically not sound, there can be a danger in people who don't have the ability or the experience of being able to understand that it's a flawed study."

Sauer showed him a March 31, 2020 email where Fauci pointed to a review of mask research that found no evidence masks are effective against viral transmission. He said he didn't recall sending it.

He also didn't recall whether there were any "placebo-based, randomized, double-blind studies of the efficacy of masking" between February and April 2020. Fauci vaguely cited studies that show "masks clearly have an effect" when compared to not wearing masks.

Fauci also said he was either unaware or forgot that a Lancet study purporting to show hydroxychloroquine is not effective against COVID, and may cause harm, had been retracted.

"I can't say definitively that that was the specific study that I was referring to" in public comments days after it was published, Fauci said, but again cited unspecified "accumulating data from a number of studies" that found the treatment was not effective.

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