Former chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci sat for a seven-hour closed-door meeting Monday, facing questions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and offering his expertise on preparing for potential outbreaks in the future.
The former government official last year agreed to two days of trascribed interviews back-to-back with the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. The first meeting Monday ran about an hour long.
Fauci took several breaks during the meeting and did not take any questions from reporters. According to lawmakers inside the room, the tone of the meeting was “respectful” and “cooperative.”
“It’s been very cooperative in there. We’ve asked a lot of questions. Dr. Fauci responds in the best way he can. I will say that there may be over 100 or so far ‘I don’t recall’ or ‘I don’t remember’ answers,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), chair of the committee, told reporters. “That just means that maybe we have to find the people that do recall.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said the meeting had been “a day of education.”
“There’s been a lot of other information exchanged today. So, we were talking what’s the role of the federal government versus the role of state and local government. Even in one example, the most recent was just in testing and … making sure that tests are available to everybody,” Dingell said.
Fauci was joined by two of his own attorneys and two government attorneys during the interview.
Heading into the meeting, Wenstrup’s office said the chair planned to ask questions on the origins of COVID-19, alleged federal records violations, conflicts of interest and guidance that seemed to conflict with itself at times during the pandemic.
One particular issue that stood out to Wenstrup was Fauci’s definition of gain-of-function research.
Republicans have repeatedly questioned if U.S.-funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China, potentially resulted in a lab-leak that led to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well how much Fauci knew and was involved in the research. Fauci said during the Monday meeting he was open-minded on where the virus could have originated from, according to those in the room.
“One thing that’s been most interesting is a new definition that we’ve heard and Dr. Fauci refers to this as his operational definition of gain-of-function,” Wenstrup said. “And I don’t know that every scientist that deals with this type of viral research, understands his definition of operational … definition of gain-of-function.”
Democrats who attended the meeting, however, said Fauci was able to “clarify” what his definition of gain-of-function was.
“A lot of our GOP colleagues have failed to recognize the operative, regulatory definition [of] gain-of-function that was instituted in 2017 was operative at the time the COVID pandemic came along. And the concern over EcoHealth Alliance so that’s — Dr. Fauci was able to clarify that today,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said.
Gain-of-function research, as defined by the Department of Health and Human Services, is: “Research that improves the ability of a pathogen to cause disease, help define the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, thereby enabling assessment of the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents, informing public health and preparedness efforts, and furthering medical countermeasure development.”
Grant funding awarded by the National Institutes of Health went toward coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). EcoHealth Alliance, the nongovernmental organization that sub-awarded the funds to the WIV, has repeatedly stated that the money did not go toward gain-of-function research. Federal funds to the WIV were halted in 2020.
Wenstrup said Monday the hours-long interview with Fauci showed to him there were “some tremendous flaws in our system” when it came to awarding grants.
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