The Fauci witch hunt intensifies as 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. Display more opinion on CNN.

Anyone eager to relive the bitterness, madness and danger of the early Covid-19 pandemic might want to spend a few hours watching Monday’s hearing of the House Oversight Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Kent Sepkowitz - Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Kent Sepkowitz – Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

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

In their announcement for the hearing, the Republican majority made clear that their goal was to bring Fauci back to the fore, rather than a standard after-the-fact review to compile lessons learned as a means to inform the next public health crisis. . As the subcommittee’s chairman, Dr. Brad Wenstrup, a podiatrist, said, the hearing was intended, among other things, to assess Fauci “while promoting peculiar, dubious stories about the origins of Covid-19.”

During the long and vexing hearing (I watched for more than three hours), Republicans seemed determined to link US support for virus research, which began under the Obama administration, to the origins of the 2019 Covid-19 pandemic . Fauci was repeatedly plagued by questions that attempted to point to an allegedly nefarious role by the US and/or Fauci himself. The still uncertain backstory of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) is apparently seen as a promising topic for political gain.

Many articles have already been written and arguments put forward on this subject. In one corner is the group that, like me, sees the pandemic as just another natural event resulting from the exchange of standard genes between animals and humans – back and forth until, accidentally, inadvertently, a very bad strain of virus is created.

The other argument, which although has an irresistible James Bond feel but much less credibility, views the virus as a man-made construct. Perhaps the bad guys (the Chinese, in this movie script) with evil intentions have somehow deliberately hit a jackpot of evil by creating a modern doomsday virus. There are two subversions to this theory: one in which the bad guys were just evil and did something bad, and the other in which US funds were part of the evil plan, because the money was used (unintentionally or otherwise) to boost the economy to give. entire malicious program in 2014 and 2015.

Most of the hearing was spent trying to link the origins of the pandemic to a small grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the New York-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, which, as planned, gave the money to the Wuhan laboratory to study coronaviruses in China. bats. No one disputes that this happened. The plot thickens (or, in my opinion, thinns) when genetic fingerprint evidence is rolled out.

Republicans seem convinced that the subsidy intentionally or unintentionally created the doomsday virus by supporting “gain of function” research. This term refers to research into the consequences of playing with genetic material to add a new or improved ability to an organism. “Functional gain” was an oft-heard term at the hearing, a new meme uttered with practical familiarity by people who until recently knew nothing about this area of ​​research.

As hearing listeners have 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, bacteria, plant or animal could be seen as gain of function research. Imposing onerous regulations on such routine cases would bring all research to a standstill. To avoid this, the NIH has done the arduous work of defining what exactly it means from a narrow regulatory perspective that promises safety for the public through appropriate levels of oversight.

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

As Fauci said, the theory of the lab’s origins linked to NIH funding is “molecularly impossible.”

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

As Fauci explained, this doesn’t mean that other scientists in Wuhan using different funds would have taken other coronavirus strains and tweaked and tweaked the genetic makeup to cause the disaster (seems highly unlikely to me, but who knows?). “None of us can know everything that is happening in China or in Wuhan… I am open to what the origins are,” Fauci told lawmakers. But there is no way to connect 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 uncovered apparently sketchy practices by some scientists linked to research conducted in Wuhan. One person, Dr. David Morens, worked with Fauci on academic projects and the other, Dr. Peter Daszak, a colleague of Morens, led the EcoHealth Alliance and worked with the laboratory in Wuhan. For now, they appear to have used personal email for government work in violation of policy and, worse, may have developed some objectionable workarounds to evade scrutiny of their work, such as deleting messages. However, none of this pertains to US funding or NIH-funded research or Fauci.

I suspect there will be further congressional investigations into Morens and Daszak, which will generate more headlines. In the meantime, as the committee continues to waver on more emails, these lawmakers won’t bother trying to make the public safer.

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

But gee, the Covid subcommittee could at least try. As Fauci said – hopefully – about the hearing: “The reason we’re here is [to determine] how can we do better next time.” Unfortunately, this is a path that was not pursued at this subcommittee hearing.

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