In July 2020, Anthony Fauci got into a heated exchange with Republican Kentucky Senator Rand Paul during a Senate committee hearing. At the time, the question of whether the Covid-19 virus might have leaked from a Wuhan, China, laboratory was considered a conspiracy theory by most health officials and media outlets. But a few independent scientists and reporters kept investigating the possibility. A particularly troubling question was whether the U.S. government might have funded “gain-of-function” research that had made a naturally occurring virus more infectious. Fauci had supported such research in the past. And, as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a key branch of the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Institutes of Health, he was involved in distributing millions of dollars in grants to virus researchers around the world. In a hearing several months earlier, Fauci had denied that the NIH ever funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
But new information had come to light since that earlier hearing. Now, Senator Paul pushed the NIAID director to correct the record. “Dr. Fauci, as you are aware it is a crime to lie to Congress,” Rand began, before asking him if he wanted to retract his earlier statement. “Senator Paul, I have never lied before the Congress,” Fauci responded, “and I do not retract that statement.” Paul pushed back, explaining that, by gain-of-function he meant research in which “you take an animal virus and you increase [its] transmissibility to humans.” Fauci wouldn’t budge: “You do not know what you’re talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially.” The exchange grew even more heated. “You are implying what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals. I totally resent that,” Fauci continued. “If anyone is lying here, Senator, it is you.”
Fauci’s haughty defense of his integrity got sympathetic treatment in most media outlets, while Paul’s aggressive questioning was described as “grandstanding.” Their argument wasn’t about whether the NIH had funded research at the lab; it had already been established that $600,000 in NIH grant money had gone to a Wuhan Institute project studying bat coronaviruses. Rather, the debate concerned whether the institute’s manipulations of those viruses could be described as gain-of-function (GOF). Fauci and then-NIH director Francis S. Collins publicly insisted on a narrow definition of GOF, one that didn’t include the Wuhan study. On the other hand, Rutgers University scientist Richard H. Ebright, a vocal critic of such research, told the Washington Post that the NIH-funded Wuhan project was “unequivocally gain-of-function research.”
The matter might have rested there: at best, an honest difference of opinion over scientific terminology; at worst, a senator’s demagogic attack on a dedicated public official. Unfortunately for Fauci and Collins, damning revelations about the internal operations of their agencies continued to seep out over the next three years, with the floodgates bursting wide in the past several months. Fauci’s assurances before Congress have now been exposed as brazenly evasive. In fact, a string of emails and other disclosures reveals a pattern of deception and arrogance on the part of not just Fauci and Collins but an array of leading scientists and public officials. None of the recent disclosures constitutes definitive evidence that the virus did, in fact, leak from the Wuhan lab. That question remains hotly debated, and advocates for a natural (or “zoonotic”) origin can point to several studies that provide tenuous evidence for their position. But Fauci and Collins’s dishonest handling of the lab leak question is a scandal, whether or not the Wuhan lab is ever proven to be the pandemic’s source. At a time when the public had urgent questions about the origin of Covid, both scientists withheld key information. They denigrated any scientist, reporter, or politician who questioned their narrative. And they worked behind the scenes to keep the question under wraps.
Such high-handedness on the part of public health leaders would become all too common throughout the pandemic. Top officials had firm ideas about what policies were needed to slow the disease, and they didn’t trust civilians to handle nuanced questions or awkward facts. Instead, they tried to nudge the public toward what they viewed as proper behavior through oversimplifications, half-truths, and noble lies. Fauci seemed particularly comfortable taking on the role of the all-knowing voice of science itself. The NIAID chief acted as though it was self-evident that he should have the last word on factual disputes. If anyone challenged him, Fauci notoriously told CBS’s Face the Nation, “they’re really criticizing science, because I represent science. That’s dangerous.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, Americans—including most conservatives—generally accepted the extreme measures that experts said would “flatten the curve.” But as the pandemic dragged on, Americans noticed that public health policies often seemed based more on official whims than on reliable data. First came Fauci’s famous flipflop on the efficacy of wearing masks. Then, the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies downplayed evidence that the Covid-19 virus travels mostly through the air. Their constantly repeated advice to stay six feet apart and avoid touching your face turned out to be useless.
Across the country, health officials aggressively shut down parks and beaches and banned religious services. Some churches faced nearly Stasi-level surveillance. But when millions of demonstrators flooded the streets during the George Floyd protests in the spring of 2020, the same officials stood aside, or actively cheered the protests on. That astounding shift revealed how almost every aspect of Covid science and policy had become politicized. The CDC maintained its rigid support for mask-wearing and school closures to meet the demands of teachers’ unions, relying on discredited research in the process. While the rapid development of vaccines was one of the few policy victories of the pandemic, the CDC and other health bureaucrats gummed up the initial vaccine rollout by proposing confusing social-justice metrics to determine who should be first in line for the shots. For more than a year, officials both overstated the vaccines’ benefits and understated their small (but not trivial) risks to certain populations. Eventually, the public learned that officials from the FBI and other agencies had been strong-arming Twitter (now X), Google, Facebook, and other social media outlets, demanding that the companies squelch questions about vaccine efficacy and criticisms of lockdown policies.
Step by step, Americans began to lose confidence in both the competence and honesty of our public officials. According to a Pew Research poll, approval of “public health officials such as those at the CDC” dropped from 79 percent to 52 percent between March 2020 and May 2022. Tellingly, while Republicans and Republican leaners gave public health officials higher approval ratings at the start of the pandemic (84 percent, compared with 74 percent for Democrats and Democrat leaners), by May 2022, only 29 percent of Republicans thought those officials were doing an “excellent/good job responding to the coronavirus outbreak,” while support among Democrats held almost steady. Just as the financial crisis of 2008 destroyed the public’s confidence in financial leaders, the Covid pandemic exposed the many ways our public health establishment was both overconfident and underprepared. In the end, all those exhortations to “trust the science” backfired. It gradually became clear that, when it came to some of the most important scientific and policy questions involving Covid-19, Fauci, Collins, and other officials were simply not trustworthy.
The lab-leak question slowly re-emerged, thanks primarily due to the dogged work of a few scientists and independent journalists willing to defy the mainstream consensus. Fauci and Collins sidestepped questions about it, while their agencies slow-walked responses to Freedom of Information Act requests. In an earlier era, such stonewalling from government agencies would have infuriated the press and spurred intense reporting efforts. But instead, for the first two years of the pandemic, most mainstream news outlets eagerly assisted health officials in suppressing or demonizing questions about a possible lab leak. In 2021, the New York Times’s lead Covid reporter famously tweeted her hope that people would “stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots.”
In the end, it took some grandstanding Republicans in Congress to break the logjam of information. In July 2023, the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic released a trove of emails, text messages, and other interactions between Fauci, Collins, other health officials, and leading virus experts. Other messages were leaked to independent reporters, including Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger. These communications reveal a stunning contrast between those experts’ confident public statements and the doubts and fears they expressed privately.
In dozens of interviews, dating to the start of the pandemic, Fauci, Collins, and others expressed bland assurances that the new virus must have spilled into the human population from a wild animal. The idea that the Wuhan Institute might have been involved was dismissed as “just a conspiracy theory,” in Fauci’s words. But the recently disclosed communications reveal that behind the scenes, many of the world’s top virologists worried that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had leaked from the Wuhan lab. Worse, some feared that its terrifying transmissibility might be due to genetic manipulation.
The panic started in late January 2020, soon after a brave Chinese scientist published the full genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, allowing researchers to see just what they were up against. Swarms of anxious emails flew between experts around the world, many directed to or including Fauci and other U.S. officials. On January 31, Kristian Andersen, a prominent virologist with Scripps Research, emailed Fauci that “Some of the features (potentially) look engineered.” In another email, Andersen fretted that “the lab escape version of this is just so friggin’ likely to have happened because they were already doing this type of work and the molecular data is fully consistent with that scenario.”
On February 1, Fauci and about a dozen leading scientists discussed the question on a conference call. It remains unclear just what was said on that call, but overnight the group began working to discredit the very idea of a lab leak, which Andersen suddenly began calling one of the “main crackpot theories going around at the moment.” Fauci suggested that Andersen and several others produce a scientific paper making the case for a natural origin and putting to rest any fears that the virus had leaked from a lab. That paper, “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” appeared in Nature on March 17, 2020. Its authors didn’t just lean toward the theory that Covid spilled over from some animal species; they categorically rejected any other approach, writing, “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
In later interviews and testimony, Andersen, Fauci, and others maintained that their sudden embrace of the zoonotic-origin thesis was simply the scientific process at work. But the newly uncovered texts and emails show that, even as they worked on a paper dismissing the lab-leak possibility, many of these scientists still thought it highly likely. One “Proximal Origin” coauthor wrote that, given the research that had been going on at Wuhan, “we have a nightmare of circumstantial evidence to assess.” Another noted that the virus “seems to have been pre-adapted for human spread since the get go.” And, contrary to Fauci’s public insistence that the Wuhan lab work didn’t merit the label “gain-of-function,” the same scientists routinely described the Wuhan research using that term. “It’s not crackpot to suggest this could have happened,” yet another “Proximal Origin” coauthor wrote on Slack, “given the Gain of Function research we know is happening.” Most damningly, in a February 2020 email, Fauci himself wrote, “scientists in Wuhan University are known to have been working on gain-of-function experiments” involving bat viruses.
When the “Proximal Origin” paper came out, Fauci and Collins greeted it as if it had spontaneously emerged from a group of disinterested, independent researchers. In a letter posted on the NIH website, Collins wrote, “this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for Covid-19. And that’s a good thing because it allows us to keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting . . . dedicated health-care professionals and researchers.” Collins’s happy talk was part of a pattern: NIH and NIAID officials would do almost anything to keep the public from asking about the origins of Covid. They much preferred to concentrate on telling the American public how to behave.
Of course, the “Proximal Origin” paper did not emerge spontaneously. As journalist David Zweig writes, “Fauci and Collins were so closely involved with the paper that in internal communications among the paper’s five authors they referred to the pair as the ‘Bethesda Boys’.” The digital trail strongly suggests that the Bethesda Boys pushed the team to be more emphatic in rejecting the possibility of a laboratory origin (though there was then no solid evidence for or against either scenario). And the scientist-authors themselves were hardly disinterested. Virus labs are expensive operations, and the NIH and NIAID control more than $1 billion in grant money. Andersen, for example, had an $8.9 million NIAID grant pending at the time. Fauci signed off on it two months after “Proximal Origin” was published.
The “Proximal Origin” paper achieved its purpose. Scientists who might have harbored doubts were mostly cowed into silence; media outlets were liberated to disparage lab-leak questions as “debunked bunkum,” in the words of MSNBC’s Joy Reid; and social media companies felt empowered to throttle discussions of the topic. Through it all, Collins and Fauci appeared to float above the debate; when Fauci described the lab-leak possibility as a silly conspiracy theory, he implied he was merely channeling the consensus of the scientific community. That was by design; his leading role in steering the origin-of-Covid narrative took place entirely offstage. In one perhaps unadvisedly honest email to a Bloomberg reporter, a top Fauci advisor explained that, “Tony doesn’t want his fingerprints on origin stories.”
The lab leak theory was only one of several awkward questions the public health establishment worked hard to suppress. For example, in October 2020, Stanford medicine and economics professor Jay Bhattacharya, along with two colleagues, drafted a set of recommendations advising against broad lockdowns and in favor of what they called “focused protection” of the elderly and vulnerable. Known as the Great Barrington Declaration, their open letter argued that continued restrictions placed too many burdens on children and the working class. There was plenty of room to debate those conclusions. But Fauci and Collins didn’t want to debate. In an email to Fauci, Collins called the Great Barrington authors “three fringe epidemiologists“ (despite their affiliations with, respectively, Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard universities) and insisted that “there needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown” of their ideas. For his part, Fauci circulated weak opinion articles comparing the GBD authors with “climate change deniers” and tobacco companies denying the health risks of smoking.
Behind the scenes, Fauci and Collins helped inspire a secretive federal effort to suppress divergent views about the lab-leak theory, lockdowns, masks, vaccines—almost any opinion that deviated from official policy. In September, the House Oversight Committee reported evidence that Fauci made one or more undisclosed visits to CIA headquarters in an effort to influence a CIA inquiry into Covid’s origins. A joint investigation by Racket and Public suggests what writers Matt Taibbi, Alex Gutentag, and Michael Shellenberger call “a broad effort by Fauci to go agency by agency, from the White House to the State Department to the CIA, in an effort to steer government officials away from looking into the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a lab.” A whistleblower involved with that CIA investigation told the reporters, Fauci’s “opinion substantially altered the conclusions that were subsequently drawn.”
Staffers at the White House, the FBI, the CDC, and other agencies also worked to suppress public debates about the lab leak theory and other Covid controversies. They constantly badgered contacts at Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Google to suppress or remove content they deemed “misinformation.” In one notable exchange, a deputy assistant to President Biden emailed his contact at Facebook over an objectionable post: “Are you guys f---ing serious? I want an answer on what happened here and I want it today,” he wrote. The Great Barrington authors were a particular target of these campaigns. In April 2021, YouTube removed a video of a roundtable discussion in which Florida governor Ron DeSantis discussed Covid policy with a group of scientists, including Bhattacharya. A YouTube spokesman said the company removed the video because it “contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities.” What was the “misinformation” that got the video censored? Some members of the panel expressed doubts about the benefits of masks for small children, a view that is widely accepted today.
It’s worth taking a moment to let that sink in: a sitting governor sought information from leading scientists, in a public setting, about a crucial scientific question. One would think that is exactly how technical policy discussions should work in a democracy. Instead, the conversation was quickly scrubbed from social media. Bhattacharya called YouTube’s censorship “contrary to American democratic norms of free expression,” as well as “a violation of basic standards of scientific conduct, which . . . require the free exchange of ideas.” In early September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit backed up Bhattacharya’s claim. The court found that the Biden White House, the FBI, the CDC, and others had likely “engaged in a years-long pressure campaign designed to ensure the censorship aligned with the government’s preferred viewpoints.” The pressure the U.S. government put on social media companies went far beyond criticizing statements that appeared on their platforms. Rather, the court found, the White House likely “coerced the platforms to make their moderation decisions by way of intimidating messages and threats of adverse consequences.”
Federal public health officials didn’t just suppress accurate information at odds with their policies; they also relied on flawed science to prop up their recommendations. Rochelle Walensky boasted impeccable medical credentials when she took over as director of the CDC in January 2021. But from the start, she showed a penchant for making decisions based on shaky scientific data—or no data at all—especially when those decisions favored teachers’ unions, perhaps the administration’s most powerful constituency. Immediately upon taking office, Walensky began coordinating closely with the American Federation of Teachers and its president Randi Weingarten in devising the agency’s go-slow recommendations on school reopening. Emails obtained through FOIA requests showed that portions of one CDC guidance memo were copied almost verbatim from AFT “suggestions.” (In fact, the scientific evidence supporting extended school closures was weak, at best.)
Later that year, when the CDC issued guidance saying vaccinated people could stop wearing masks, the teachers’ unions swung into action again. They wanted all students and teachers to remain masked. Weingarten and another union leader got on the phone with Walensky. By the end of the day, the CDC had revised its recommendation: Schools would continue “the mandatory and correct use of wearing masks” and continue social distancing. The CDC recommendation, which affected children as young as two, was out of step with policies in most developed nations. The E.U. Center for Disease Prevention and Control, for example, recommended against the routine masking of schoolchildren. Walensky later defended her agency’s mask recommendations by citing an Arizona study claiming that masks dramatically reduced school transmission. A report in The Atlantic by David Zweig showed that the Arizona study was almost comically flawed, relying on a methodology another researcher called “ridiculous.”
The Biden administration came into the White House promising to “follow the science.” Instead, Zweig noted, the CDC’s lack of transparency and use of dubious science “seem to show the opposite.” All too predictably, the government’s insistence on masks for adults also turned out to lack a scientific basis. In 2023, the lead author of a Cochrane Review meta-analysis of mask efficacy told a reporter, “There is still no evidence that masks are effective during a pandemic.” But even in retirement, Fauci continues to defend masking policies. In early September, as Covid cases again trended modestly upward, the former NIAID chief told CNN, “I am concerned that people will not abide by [masking] recommendations.”
The educational delays and emotional damage inflicted by extended school closures and mask mandates continue to affect young Americans and may linger a lifetime in some cases. Americans’ loss of faith in our experts and leaders may prove permanent as well. Another legacy of the Covid era will be the ongoing subversion of scientific debate—and science journalism—by politics. Looking back, we see that almost every question the pandemic posed became politically polarized: How long should schools and businesses stay closed? Should masks be mandatory? What treatments work against the illness? (Remember the media’s obsession with calling the disputed treatment Ivermectin “horse de-wormer”?) How well do the vaccines work? If conservatives lined up on one side of these debates, liberal politicians and health officials reliably lined up on the other. Journalists covering these arguments saw them, not as scientific questions to be analyzed using facts, but as issues to be weighed according to political alliances. So, for example, when Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp loosened lockdown requirements, The Atlantic called the move an “experiment in human sacrifice.”
This polarization was particularly obvious in coverage of the lab-leak question. From early in the pandemic, the media often approached the possibility of a lab leak as conservative propaganda. In 2020, CNN’s Chris Cillizza said the question was “simply the latest example of how Trump seeks to shape reality to fit his predetermined conclusion.” Even after the winter of 2023, when the FBI and U.S. Department of Energy both announced that their investigators now lean toward the Wuhan lab as the source of the virus, many media outlets still treated the topic with distaste. Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik, for example, is a devoted critic of the lab-leak theory; he often writes about the group he calls “COVID conspiracy-mongers” and “table-pounding” Republicans in Congress. This framing is telling: The scientific arguments for and against the lab-leak explanation are dense, technical, and worthy of evenhanded coverage. But Hiltzik and other journalists keep implying that certain arguments should carry less weight if the wrong sorts of people espouse them.
The questions that Senator Paul and others raised during the early months of the pandemic remain unanswered. We still don’t know enough about the research that was being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Given China’s secrecy and intransigence, we likely never will. Supporters of the zoonotic spillover theory often point to two recent studies. One appears to show that the early cases of Covid in Wuhan clustered around that city’s famous Huanan Seafood Market. The other found traces of SARS-Cov-2 DNA comingled with DNA from “raccoon dogs” and other mammals sold inside the market. (Racoon dogs are a species known to be vulnerable to SARS-CoV0-2 infection and often cited as a likely vector of the disease to humans.) Those reports led many journalists to proclaim that the “animal origin of Covid” was now close to proven. In fact, both studies have potentially fatal flaws. For example, computational virologist Jesse Bloom of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center dug deeper into the wet-market DNA data and found that, in fact, “Raccoon dogs are one of the species least co-mingled with SARS2.” On the other hand, some bits of evidence that were thought to support the lab-leak explanation have also been shown to be mistaken. The debate continues, with scientists and journalists alike far too eager to embrace any shred of evidence they believe supports their side.
The Covid-era collapse in ethical standards in science, government, and journalism might have brought a period of re-examination and reflection. For example, Watergate, 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis all led to major investigations and reforms. So far, however, the pandemic’s polarized battle lines remain intact. Rather than re-examine their mistakes, in fact, some elite institutions seem eager to institutionalize the excesses of the period. In August, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study titled “Communication of COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media by Physicians in the US.” The JAMA study examined various Covid claims made by several dozen doctors with large social media followings and bemoaned “the absence of federal laws regulating medical misinformation on social media platforms.” It suggested that doctors who propagate misinformation should be subject to “legal and professional recourse.”
What were the types of misinformation that might require such a heavy-handed response? The study quoted some extreme anti-vaccination theories and other far-out claims. But many of the topics it flagged as “misinformation” fell well within the range of normal scientific or political discourse. The authors wrote, for example: “Many physicians focused on negative consequences related to children and mask mandates in schools, claiming that masks interfered with social development.” The JAMA authors also objected to the assertion that health officials “censored information that challenged government messaging.” Of course, as the Facebook and Twitter documents showed—and the U.S. 5th Circuit recently concluded—that’s exactly what the government did. Finally, the JAMA study flagged as misinformation the claim that Covid-19 originated from a Chinese laboratory, which, it limply objects, “contradicted scientific evidence at the time.” Imagine if the JAMA authors had their way and medical experts were professionally and legally enjoined from contradicting the scientific consensus on major health questions. Without the ability to challenge popular viewpoints, scientists can’t advance our state of knowledge. In such a world, the germ theory of disease might still be dismissed as misinformation; doctors might still be relying on leeches and neglecting to wash their hands.
Science depends on the free and transparent exchange of information, as does our democratic system. Efforts to suppress or demonize contrary viewpoints undermine both the advance of knowledge and our ability to debate policy questions. In the frantic period before Covid exploded in the U.S., one scientist texted virologist Kristian Andersen about his alarm that blame for a possible lab leak might fall on China’s researchers. Given the public backlash that would follow, he argued, it was best for other scientists simply to say that “we are content with ascribing it to natural processes.” Andersen responded: “I hate it when politics is injected into science, but it’s impossible not to, especially given the circumstances.” So, it was settled. A group of the world’s top virologists decided to hide their doubts and claim unanimous agreement that the virus emerged from nature.
When scientists craft their scientific conclusions to political ends, they are no longer practicing science. They have entered the political fray. They shouldn’t be surprised when the public begins suspecting political motives behind their other claims, as well. Public health officials let political concerns and institutional biases influence their statements and policies throughout the pandemic. And the media eagerly served as handmaiden to these efforts. Americans started the Covid-19 pandemic ready to make enormous sacrifices to protect their own health and that of others. But our political leaders, health officials, and media squandered that trust through years of capricious policies and calculated dishonesty. It could take a generation or more to win it back.
Photo by Art Wager/iStock