Dr. Anthony Fauci has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984. His salient qualities would seem to be a genial concern for our well-being and a fund of practical wisdom informed by expertise. Still, 37 years in a position of enormous power is probably too long not to nurture delusions of infallibility.
Fauci confirmed that impression when, in a June 9, 2021, interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, he said, “A lot of what you’re seeing as attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science.” The reason his critics resent him, Fauci added, is that, throughout the Covid siege, he has been a source of “inconvenient truths.” Just how inconvenient have his statements been, and how truthful?
Testifying before the Senate on May 11, Fauci was asked by Rand Paul: “Do you still support [National Institutes of Health] funding of the lab in Wuhan?” “Senator Paul,” replied Fauci, “with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect.” Few in the audience would have known that Fauci’s NIAID did funnel money, through a grant to a North Carolina virologist, Dr. Ralph Baric, to support gain-of-function research on bat viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Gain-of-function research—which can make a disease more lethal or infectious—had been shut down by a US moratorium that lasted from 2014 to 2017. The link to China was cut by a presidential order in April 2020. So, Fauci’s testimony was not literally false: NIAID wasn’t still supporting the bat virus research in the Wuhan lab; and the support had been at one remove.
The avowed purpose of gain-of-function research is to combat a future pandemic that nature hasn’t yet found the ingenuity to launch. But the investment also has a potential military use—to sicken and kill enemies in large numbers. And criticism of this experimental subculture has come largely from scientists themselves. Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers, said that the Fauci-Baric model—using gain-of-function techniques in an urban center, in a lab known for its failure to maintain the highest level of safety—was like “looking for a gas leak with a lighted match.”
Fauci’s early and insistent claim that Covid-19 came from nature was abetted by a friendly subterfuge. Dr. Peter Daszak, an associate of Baric, organized a letter on February 19, 2020, signed by 27 public health scientists, which affirmed the pandemic’s natural origin. (In a February 6 e-mail, Daszak had coordinated with Baric to keep his name off the public letter, so as not to arouse a well-founded suspicion of a conflict of interest.) This gave Fauci a breathing space of several months, during which his reputation rose steadily.
Early on, Fauci declared that masks were unnecessary. He later confessed that he had shaded the truth to avert a run on vital equipment. When he gradually revised upward the percentage of vaccinated Americans required for herd immunity, what was really changing was his estimate of how much truth we could take, and when.
Further into his exchange with Paul, Fauci offered some reassuring words: “Dr. Baric is not doing gain-of-function research, and if it is, it is according to the guidelines, and it is being conducted in North Carolina.” Well, is he or isn’t he? Because if he is doing that research, who would know better than Fauci? In this testimony, as in much of his conduct over the past two years, Dr. Fauci was speaking “nothing but the truth.” Yet he was mindful of what Jesuits used to call a reservation.
A reservation, in this sense, is an unspoken qualification. The speaker telegraphs a public meaning, confident it will be misunderstood. He holds in reserve a private meaning whose release might damage a higher cause (a cause known to the speaker and God, of which God approves). For God, in this context, we should read: “US government institutions of scientific research.” Yet American support of catastrophically hazardous experimentation was by no means the only pertinent fact withheld from American citizens.
Several Wuhan lab researchers had been suddenly hospitalized in November 2019 with an illness reported to be influenza. A comprehensive June 3 Vanity Fair article by Katherine Eban—following trenchant investigative pieces arguing against the came-from-nature hypothesis by Nicholson Baker and Nicholas Wade—revealed that officials at the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance were advised not to look into the “Pandora’s box” of the Wuhan lab. After the outbreak, the Chinese government incidentally removed from the online record 22,000 virus samples and sequences, to hamper any inquiry into the source of Covid-19. Fauci hardly registered a demur at these irregularities.
His advocacy of gain-of-function research may have begun with his support for alleviation of the AIDS epidemic, but it got a considerable boost from his service as George W. Bush’s bioterror czar. He showed a keen interest in strengthening the human immune response to pathogens such as those that cause anthrax and plague. A few years into the Obama administration, one could still encounter Fauci—in a 2011 Washington Post op-ed, cosigned by Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and the virologist Gary Nabel—arguing that the benefits of “engineered viruses” made it a “risk worth taking.” Nor did he let up under Trump. At an NIAID conference in 2018, Fauci celebrated the lifting of the “pause” on such research. With government in “upstream” control of funding, guidance, and publications, what could go wrong?
Many in the scientific community now suggest that a lab-leak origin of Covid-19 is likelier than a natural one. The virus seems too perfect, it drills into human tissues so neatly, and no intervening adaptations have been found in nature. Anthony Fauci may be remembered, in the end, as a warning more than an exemplar: an adventurous bureaucrat in the field of scientific research who became a hero in his own eyes. The trouble begins when such a person asks for our implicit trust in return for his good intentions.