Gain-of-Function Scandal Doesn't Dent Partisan Defense of Fauci | Opinion

As far as fans of Dr. Anthony Fauci were concerned, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) director's confrontations with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in May and July were just outrageous smears cooked up by Trumpist conspiracy theorists to discredit America's pandemic hero.

Paul's accusations that Fauci was lying about the NIAID funding gain-of-function research—in which a virus is genetically altered in a manner that can make it more dangerous to humans—in Wuhan, China, met with broad dismissal. Fauci's supporters also denounced the entire line of inquiry about how the deadly virus emerged and spread throughout the world.

Pundits at liberal outlets were all in agreement. Republicans and conservatives who demand scrutiny of the NIAID's funding practices were nothing less than conspiracy mongers. Paul, himself an ophthalmologist, was denounced as a peddler of misinformation and his accusations were treated as slander of a noble public servant.

But when, in response to a query from Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a letter on Oct. 20, it contained a startling admission. The NIH admitted that, contrary to previous assertions from Fauci and other health bureaucrats that one of the agency's grant recipients had indeed conducted gain-of-function research in Wuhan.

Rather than cave to increasing pressure to resign—as Paul and other Republicans are demanding—Fauci doubled down on his denials, with the sort of sophistry that Democrats would never accept from anyone they hadn't essentially beatified.

Most liberals have steadfastly ignored the question of how the pandemic began. Doing so allows them to blame all COVID deaths on former president Donald Trump and to treat any efforts to blame China's communist government—which shut down inquiry after inquiry into the question—as racist. Support has increased in recent months for an investigation into the origins of the virus, especially after a partially declassified report revealed a split among government agencies over the question.

But the one thing Democrats still won't tolerate is criticism of Fauci.

Anthony Fauci
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 18: Dr. Anthony Fauci, via video, speaks during The Creative Coalition's 7th Annual Television Humanitarian Awards on September 18, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The medical bureaucrat emerged as a media star as the pandemic unfolded. He was seen as the voice of reason and science, in contrast to the often wildly inconsistent president, as the government struggled to deal with the pandemic during the early months when fear of the virus was at its greatest. An object of public adoration—a position he clearly enjoyed—Fauci has received endless tributes, including a flattering documentary portrayal.

In our polarized political environment, everything becomes fodder for the ongoing culture war. Fauci's stardom produced backlash from Republicans and Trump supporters. They have been quick to seize on mistakes and misstatements—such as the times Fauci dismissed of fears of a pandemic and denigrated mask wearing. His various predictions of how long the crisis would last, which seem to always put off a return to normalcy until far into the future, also provoked resentment.

The gain-of-function question has already become another partisan battleground.

Fauci now says that the research his agency funded cannot be directly tied to the specific coronavirus that launched the pandemic. He consistently claimed that the research in question was not gain-of-function, even though it involved procedures virtually identical to the definition he previously gave Congress. While the NIH—and Fauci—are trying to pin the blame solely on the grant recipient, the letter confirms that Fauci's agency did fund an experiment in which mice were infected with a bat coronavirus that sickened at least some of them.

A full public audit of U.S. taxpayer-funded grants issued in the virology field is clearly necessary, as a full-bore investigation—of the kind that Congress prefers to reserve for only the Jan. 6 Capitol riot—into the coronavirus's origins. There is now good reason to worry that the government may be enabling experiments that can lead to unknowable and potentially catastrophic consequences without common-sense oversight.

And while Fauci can bluster in indignation about the heightened scrutiny being given his past remarks, the letter makes it obvious that those previous statements were, at best, misleading, and, at worst, a coverup of a scandal with deadly consequences.

But the NIH letter and its aftermath tells us as much about the bifurcated nature of American politics as about the agency or gain-of-function research. Having embraced Fauci as an icon of science—and whatever COVID advice he is giving at any moment as unassailable truth—powerful forces in the media and Congress are likely not ready to question anything he has said or done.

At a moment when heightened scrutiny of the NIAID's actions is necessary, blue America seems unlikely to budge from its "Fauci, right or wrong" stand. That's a tragedy not just for science and public health but for a political culture that seems only to care about which of our two factions will benefit from a full airing of the facts.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org, a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.