Dr. Anthony Fauci toured a New York vaccine site with first lady Jill Biden on Sunday, offering a positive photo-op as he battles critics who say his 2020 emphasis on a natural source of the coronavirus damaged his credibility and that he must clarify how U.S. grant funding was used at a virology center in Wuhan, China.
Dr. Fauci, a Brooklyn native, posed for group selfies with the first lady at the iconic church in Harlem as the administration promotes vaccinations generally and tries to overcome hesitancy within the Black community.
The timing of his trip was notable — the doctor does frequent TV hits and press conferences but doesn’t hit the road often with White House luminaries.
It capped a tumultuous week in which an email dump showed Dr. Fauci, the 80-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, conferring with scientists about the virus’s unique traits and working to confirm that a grant to EcoHealth didn’t amount to “gain-of-function” research that might have strengthened the virus.
An email from the grant recipient, EcoHealth, thanked him for emphasizing the natural-origins theory over the lab-leak theory, sparking an outcry even as Dr. Fauci said he isn’t responsible for emails from others and remains open to the lab theory.
Congressional Republicans and former President Donald Trump say the emails suggest the longtime NIH doctor was too trusting of Chinese scientists who work under the thumb of the communist party in Beijing and belatedly acknowledged the possibility that the COVID-19 virus originated in a research setting.
“The media, the Democrats and the so-called experts are now finally admitting what I first said 13 months ago — the evidence demonstrates that the virus originated in a Chinese government lab,” Mr. Trump said Saturday at a GOP dinner in North Carolina.
It was a friendlier scene in the church’s vaccine center, which filled up after word of the VIPs’ visit got out.
“You’re a tough one.” Mrs. Biden told a 14-year-old who said he didn’t need to hold her hand.
“Good for you,” Dr. Fauci said.
Annette Gausney, born in 1929, got her shot while wearing a sea-green mask and a sparkly purple dress.
“This is the first lady of the United States,” Linda Thompson, head of health ministry at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
“Oh!” said Ms. Gausney. “I’m 92.”
Yet they couldn’t escape the last week’s uproar. The doctor was greeted on the street by protesters chanting “Fire Fauci” and “Freedom over Fear.”
Dr. Fauci has been the director of NIAID since 1984. He speaks to the media regularly and became a political litmus test during the pandemic, with some liberals putting “Trust Fauci” signs in their yards while conservatives castigated him for shifting advice as scientific knowledge about the virus evolved.
The Harlem church served as a welcoming environment, with handshakes and smiles as locals rolled up their sleeves to get protected against COVID-19.
“This is a historic place that I’ve known since I was a child being a New Yorker myself,” Dr. Fauci said at the church. “We’re going to end this outbreak, with absolute uncertainty and the vehicle to ending it is vaccination and that’s what’s going on right here.”
“He is under a lot of unwarranted attacks and getting out there in the midst of them makes good sense to me,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “I think this outrage over China and Fauci is 95% partisan and 5% ‘fog of war.’ I have read most of the emails and I don’t see much in the way of smoke, much less a gun.”
Dr. Fauci tried to shift pressure back onto China ahead of his weekend trip. Experts point to the communist party’s obstruction as the main impediment to understanding how the virus infected humans and devastated the globe.
The doctor said China should release medical records from Wuhan lab workers who contracted an illness consistent with COVID-19 symptoms in November 2019, or about a month before the first disclosed case in the central Chinese city.
“I would like to see the medical records of the three people who are reported to have got sick in 2019,” Dr. Fauci told the Financial Times. “Did they really get sick, and if so, what did they get sick with?”
Dr. Fauci also said China should hand over records tied to six miners who got viral pneumonia in a bat cave in the Yunnan Province in 2012.
An extensive story in Vanity Fair says the Wuhan lab collected samples from the cave after the incident.
The lab’s top scientist, Shi Zhengli, and colleagues published a paper in 2020 saying the new coronavirus is 96.2% identical to a virus sequence collected from Yunnan Province, fueling speculation of a link as investigators explore the possibility of a mistake at the virology center.
“What do the medical records of those people say? Was there [a] virus in those people? What was it? It is entirely conceivable that the origins of SARS-CoV-2 was in that cave and either started spreading naturally or went through the lab,” Dr. Fauci told FT, using the formal name for the coronavirus that caused the pandemic and has killed nearly 600,000 people in the U.S.
Mr. Trump targeted China alongside Dr. Fauci over the weekend, arguing the U.S. and other nations should demand “reparations” of at least $10 trillion from Beijing to compensate them for the damage inflicted by the virus.
“We should all declare with one unified voice that China must pay,” Mr. Trump said. “The United States should immediately take steps to phase in a 100% tariff on all goods made in China. As a first step, all countries should collectively cancel any debt they have to China as a down payment on reparations.”
Corey Lewandowski, a Trump adviser, said the U.S. should appoint former secretaries of state Mike Pompeo and Hillary Clinton to “look into why 600,000 Americans have died because of this.
“Let’s hold China accountable. Let’s ask for the reparations which they owe not only us but probably the world, and I think $10 trillion sounds like about the right amount to me,” Mr. Lewandowski told “Fox News Sunday.”
Fox host Chris Wallace pressed Mr. Lewandowski on the early months of the pandemic, pointing to Mr. Trump’s praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the virus as late as March 27.
“Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!” Mr. Trump tweeted at the time.
Mr. Lewandowski said Mr. Trump was relying on Dr. Fauci and others who emphasized a natural origin as the most likely source of the virus.
Mr. Wallace wasn’t impressed, saying: “You’re gonna blame the president’s inaction on Dr. Fauci?”
For his part, Dr. Fauci has said it is important to find the origins of the virus but he feels the mission has taken a personal turn.
“It is being approached now in a very vehement way, in a very distorted way, I believe, by attacking me,” Dr. Fauci told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “I think the question is extremely legitimate. You should want to know how this happened so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. But what’s happened in the middle of all of that, I’ve become the object of extraordinary – I believe – completely inappropriate, distorted, misleading, and misrepresented attacks which, you know, it is what it is, but it’s happening, and that’s unfortunate.”
Congressional Republicans say their inquiry is deadly serious. They want Dr. Fauci and the National Institutes of Health to clarify how a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, which disbursed funds to the Wuhan lab, was used in the past decade. They particularly want to know whether U.S. funds contributed to gain-of-function research that can make pathogens more transmissible.
NIH officials say they do not believe any U.S. funding went to that type of work in Wuhan. They argue it was vital, however, to engage with Chinese scientists because it is home to reservoirs of bat-related viruses that sparked the 2003 SARS outbreak and could pose a future human threat.
“Are you really saying that we are implicated [in the pandemic] because we gave a multibillion-dollar institution $120,000 a year for bat surveillance?” Dr. Fauci asked FT.
Republicans also want to know more about the early investigation into the virus, citing emails to Dr. Fauci from scientists who initially thought the virus looked manipulated.
Former Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said there were early fears the virus might have been engineered, based on the viral sequences, but scientists began to realize over the following months that the virus might have occurred in nature.
“I didn’t think there was anything remarkable in those [Fauci] emails. I certainly don’t think there was anything that Tony sent that expressed any ill intent and nothing really that was new from the standpoint of what we already knew,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Dr. Gottlieb said it did verify, however, there were early suspicions of a lab leak and that it prompted discussions between Dr. Fauci and European leaders.
“I think early on when they looked at the strain, they had suspicions,” he said. “A closer analysis, and it takes time to do that analysis, dispelled some of those suspicions.”
He said the investigation moving forward should be in the hands of both the scientific and national security communities.
Some say Americans should be prepared to see more partisan sniping, but few real answers about the coronavirus.
“We are not going to get a satisfying answer to the China question — China has no interest in providing one,” Mr. Caplan said. “They like watching our lead scientist get beat up in a political mugging.”
Andrew Blake and Dave Boyer contributed to this story.