Dr. Anthony Fauci and Rand Paul squared off on Tuesday over the origins of the coronavirus, with the Republican senator accusing the National Institutes of Health of funding risky Chinese research into bat coronaviruses that infect humans.
Paul accused Fauci and the NIH of supporting 'gain of function' research (which is essentially the study of how viruses are transmitted) with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
'You are entirely and completely incorrect,' Fauci shot back. 'The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain of function research in the Wuhan Institute.'
Paul, an ophthalmologist, wouldn't let up, repeatedly questioning Fauci on the matter, which has emerged in conservative circles as a conspiracy theory tied to the origins of the coronavirus.
Senator Rand Paul clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci at a hearing a Senate hearing
Dr. Anthony Fauci snaps back at Senator Paul during questioning about the origins of COVID
Fact check on funding for Wuhan lab
USA Today found it 'false' that any US funding led to the COVID outbreak.
In 2014, NIH approved a grant to EcoHealth Alliance designated for research into 'Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.' The project involved collaborating with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses in bats and the risk of potential transfer to humans.
In total, $3,378,896 in NIH funding was directed from the government to the project.
Over the course of the two grants approved by the NIH for EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute received about $600,000 from the NIH, according to Robert Kessler, a spokesperson for EcoHealth Alliance.
The funding was a fee for the collection and analysis of viral samples, the group said. It was directed toward SARS research.
In the grant approved in 2014, about $133,000 was sent to the institute in the first four years and about $66,000 in the past year. In the second grant approved in 2019, about $76,000 was budgeted for the Wuhan Institute, though no money was sent before the grant's termination.
The grant was terminated in April 2020.
- USA Today fact check
'Government defenders of gain of function such as yourself, say that COVID-19 mutations were random and not designed by man,' the Republican senator from Kentucky said.
He went on talk about reports that question how the coronavirus came into existence, including an unproven theory it was created in the Wuhan lab.
'Could you rule out a laboratory escape? The answer in this case is probably not. Will you in front of this group categorically say that the COVID-19 could not have occurred through serial passage in a laboratory,' he asked Fauci.
'I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done and I'm fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China,' Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said.
'However I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAD categorically has not funded gain of function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute,' he added.
Republicans claim American funding of the research made its way to countries, including China, through U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance, a group that says its purpose is to prevent pandemics.
But PolitiFact has said it's 'false' that NIAID funding was tied to experiments that may have led to the coronavirus pandemic. Both the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance denied any funds went to gain-of-function research.
Paul only had five minutes to question Fauci during the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and he used it to repeatedly attack the medical expert.
'You're fooling with mother nature here. You're allowing super viruses to be created with a 15% mortality. It's very dangerous and it was a huge mistake to share this with China,' he said. 'We should be very careful to investigate where this virus came from.'
'I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from. But again, we have not funded gain of function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No matter how many times you say it, it didn't happen,' Fauci said.
Senator Rand Paul repeatedly questioned Dr. Fauci on whether NIH funded research at the Wuhan lab in China
Dr. Anthony Fauci repeatedly denied Paul's claims, which have emerged in conservative circles as a conspiracy theory on the origins of COVID
The White House, in March, said it believes that China has 'not been transparent' in its report on the origins of COVID-19, which was written in collaboration with the World Health Organization.
The report dismissed claims that COVID-19 had escaped from a lab in Wuhan and instead said the transfer of infection from animals to humans was 'likely to very likely.'
The White House has called for 'unfettered access' to investigate the origins of the pandemic.
When the exchange between Paul and Fauci was over on Tuesday, Democratic Senator Tina Smith, who was next up to question Fauci, asked him: 'What is the impact of conspiracy theories peddled by Senator Rand Paul and others on Americans willingness to take this vaccine, a vaccine that, by all accounts is remarkable for its safety and efficacy.'
'Well, conspiracy theories certainly are not helpful in what we're trying to do. I guess I can say that with some degree of confidence,' Fauci replied.
It's not the first time Paul and Fauci have gone head-to-head. The Republican senator, in past hearings, grilled Fauci over mask wearing and other COVID-related matters.
The senator seemed ready to roll for Tuesday's hearing.
He wrote on Twitter on Monday: 'Looking forward to tomorrow's hearing, Dr. Fauci!'