During one of his regular media blitzes on Thursday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci weighed in on the formerly crackpot theory that COVID-19 originated first in a Chinese virology laboratory. Asked by MSNBC’s Willie Geist why it has proven so difficult to identify a zoonotic origin for this virus, Fauci said that part of the problem is that we do not have full access to Chinese data—in part, because China doesn’t want us to access it.
“Obviously, you want openness and cooperation,” Fauci observed. “One of the ways you can get it is don’t be accusatory . . . I think the accusatory part of it is only going to get them to pull back even more. We’ve got to do it in a combination of diplomacy, scientific forensic investigation, and do it in a way that people of good faith—not people who want to do blame—but people in good faith are really trying to find out what the origin is.” Fauci stopped himself before saying something derogatory about those who want to “point fingers,” adding only that it was incumbent on all of us to discern “truth.”
Whatever you think of this rationale, it is entirely beyond Anthony Fauci’s remit to be speculating about the optimal ways in which America’s foreign policymakers can both investigate COVID’s origins and leverage that information to advance U.S. national interests. That is a matter of geopolitical grand strategy, not public health. Indeed, Fauci declined to speculate about the disease’s origins so as not to exceed his bounds. The doctor can discern the limits of his station. Sometimes, however, he simply declines to observe those limits.
Of course, Fauci is likely correct about Beijing’s paranoia. A nation so fragile and insecure that it demands basketball players, moviemakers, and car manufacturers pay obeisance to its preferred pieties to access its marketplace is unlikely to cooperate with an investigation into what may have been the worst industrial accident in human history. But that is not entirely disadvantageous to the United States, which is locked in a zero-sum competition with its rising peer in the Pacific. Chinese recalcitrance would only further cement the increasing perception that this disease did not originate in nature.
Couple that revelation with the increasingly obvious conclusion that the vaccines Beijing rushed to market so as to export them abroad and accrue goodwill are terribly substandard, and you can begin to see how a competent administration could roll back China’s soft-power influence over states in the developing world. That isn’t a public health objective. It is the objective of those who are engaged in statecraft—the elected officials to whom Anthony Fauci is subordinate. Or, at least, should be.
But on a subsequent appearance this morning on CNN, Fauci dismissed the idea that the “lab leak” theory is predicated on the supposition of an accident altogether. Instead, he fabricated a strawman only to set it alight.
Abandoning his reticence to speculate, Fauci said that he still believed the “most likely” origin of this disease was zoonotic, though he was open to the “lab leak” hypothesis. And yet, the doctor maintained that it was not in China’s interest to unleash COVID-19 on the planet. “The idea, I think, is quite far-fetched that the Chinese deliberately engineered something so that they could kill themselves, as well as other people,” Fauci insisted. “I think that’s a bit far out.” Indeed, it would be, which is why few serious observers are alleging anything like that.
Although still uttered only in hushed tones, what is being alleged is that valuable and necessary “gain-of-function” research partly funded by the U.S. government to identify mutation rates and replication in infectious diseases and, thus, suppress their spread escaped from a Wuhan-based research facility accidentally. That’s hardly outside the realm of conceivability.
Laboratory leaks that sicken and even kill people are not unknown to the Chinese, and security protocols are not strictly observed. Containable events like these have occurred in the recent past. “In a survey of 231 fourth-year medical students published in the Chinese journal Northwest Medical Education in 2010, 19 percent were unfamiliar with the term ‘laboratory biosafety,’” the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s publication reported in 2011. “Seventy-nine percent had heard the term but weren’t completely sure what it meant.”
The notion that China deliberately engineered a bug designed to kill rather than inadvertently designed a bug that could kill is an effort to reframe the terms of debate to be more favorable to Fauci and, oddly, the Chinese Communist Party. No one who deserves to be listened to is arguing that “gain-of-function” has no practical purpose beyond weaponization, just as it would be silly to argue that Methyl isocyanate has no practical industrial use. It just happened to kill over 3,700 people in Bhopal, India in 1984 as a result of an inadvertent disaster. By muddying these waters, Fauci isn’t clarifying what we definitively know and don’t know. He’s obfuscating and making reasoned discussion around this—the central geostrategic issue of our time—more difficult.
Fauci was also pressed to explain the contents of his emails, which reporters obtained following a Freedom of Information Act request. In one February 2020 correspondence, he told an interlocutor that masking is an ineffective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19—a line that he had told reporters was a harmless mendacity intended to prevent a run on personal protective equipment needed in hospitals. That email suggests that Fauci did, in fact, believe preliminary data that suggested masks were not an effective intervention method—which suggests that he was lying about lying when he made that admission.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is a valuable public servant. He has devoted his life to both the practice of medicine and to navigating the federal bureaucracy so that policymakers and the public they serve would benefit from his expertise. He’s done a lot of good over his long career, including his efforts that contributed to the United State’s shockingly rapid emergence from this pandemic. But Anthony Fauci does a lot of talking. And when he’s talking, he has a habit of contradicting himself or (admittedly) eliding inconvenient facts to guide an unknowing public toward outcomes he prefers. And now, he seems to be doing his best to derail elected officials from engaging in a course of action that could contribute to Sino-American tensions. That is not his job, nor is it clearly in America’s best interests. It’s time for Anthony Fauci to stop talking.