Republican Senator Rand Paul said he thinks Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, should go to prison for five years for allegedly lying to Congress.
"Fauci should go to prison for five years for lying to Congress. They've prosecuted other people, they've selectively gone after Republicans, but in no way will they do anything about him lying," he told Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network.
Mr Paul and Ms Bartiromo both claimed that Dr Fauci lied to Congress, referencing his claim that the National Institutes of Health did not fund "gain of function" research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The senator believes that a letter sent by the NIH principal deputy director contradicted Mr Fauci's claim, and that the contradiction constitutes a lie under oath.
While Mr Paul and other Republicans want to portray the claim as a cut-and-dry issue of Dr Fauci telling a lie, the truth is more complex and does not support the allegation that the doctor intentionally mislead Congress.
During a Senate hearing, Mr Paul claimed that "super viruses" had been created at the Wuhan lab and that the experiments which created the viruses had been funded by the National Institutes of Health. Dr Fauci dismissed those claims as "entirely and completely incorrect”.
According to The Washington Post, a nongovernmental group called EcoHealth Alliance did receive funding from the NIH to research on whether or not bat-specific pathogens could jump to humans. That group also reportedly did not report a finding that indicated an experiment resulted in a spike in viral growth.
Gain of function research is a common scientific practice in which researchers trigger mutations and study how they affect a specific subject. The practice has been controversial since its inception, particularly when it comes to dangerous pathogens. In recent years, scientists have become increasingly less willing to conduct the research in some circumstances due to associated risks.
The benefit of the research is that it allows scientists to study potential mutation pathways a virus might take, giving them more time and information with which to develop treatments or preventative measures.
There is no consensus in the scientific community of what specifically constitutes gain of function research, nor is there consensus on whether or not the research is too dangerous to undertake.
With regard to the NIH letter referenced by Mr Paul, it is not clear whether EcoHealth's experiments constitute gain of function research. The letter also does not suggest that the NIH actually funded any research that did result in gain of function, despite claims by Mr Paul and other Republican lawmakers.
The grant from the NIH obtained by EcoHealth for its research does not show any intention on behalf of the NGO to produce a dangerous or otherwise enhanced pathogen.
Dr Lawrence A Tabak, the principal deputy director at the NIH, wrote in his letter that "as sometimes occurs in science, this was an unexpected result of the research, as opposed to something that the researchers set out to do.”
However, he went on to say that the viruses that were studied under the grant were "genetically very distant from SARS-CoV-2," the virus that causes Covid-19. That admission suggests whatever the researchers produced at the lab was likely not the 2019 coronavirus.
Despite the fact that the NIH letter did not say it funded gain of function research, Republican lawmakers including Senator Tom Cotton have insisted that the letter admits to the agency funding those experiments.
“While the letter does not use the phrase ‘gain of function’ to avoid the obvious political consequences, it describes work that matches the commonly accepted definition of ‘gain-of-function’ research, as confirmed by members of the scientific community,” Mr Cotton's spokesman told The Washington Post. “Senator Cotton said the NIH admitted funding gain-of-function research because the NIH did in fact fund gain-of-function research, whether the letter used that phrase or not."
Mr Paul, further defending his stance that Dr Fauci lied despite the NIH letter, said Dr Fauci should be removed from his station.
"But he should be prosecuted for lying, but at the very least he should be taken out of his position because I think he cost people's lives through misinformation," Mr Paul said.
The senator chastising someone for spreading misinformation is particularly ironic, considering Mr Paul himself has numerous times undermined coronavirus mitigation efforts and spread factually incorrect information about the virus.
Last month, Mr Paul claimed that masks "don't work," citing, and twisting, the results of a study from Denmark, which actually showed that mask usage helped to mitigate the spread of the virus.
He also suggested the researchers were unwilling to study the effects of Ivermectin, a dewormer used for humans and livestock, because of their "hatred" for Donald Trump. He later recanted and admitted that such studies were being conducted.
Further, he claimed that "naturally acquired" immunity from Covid-19 – through becoming infected and surviving the virus – was better than taking the developed coronavirus vaccines. No such study existed to validate his claims at the time, and more recent research suggests that natural immunity may wear out over time, making those who were infected and survived susceptible to another infection.