WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert until leaving the government in 2022, was back before Congress on Monday, calling Republican allegations that he’d tried to cover up origins of the COVID-19 pandemic “simply preposterous.” 

A GOP-led subcommittee has spent over a year probing the nation’s response to the pandemic and whether U.S.-funded research in China may have played any role in how it started — yet found no evidence linking Fauci to wrongdoing. 

He’d already been grilled behind closed doors, for 14 hours over two days in January. But Monday, Fauci testified voluntarily in public and on camera at a hearing that quickly deteriorated into partisan attacks. 

Republicans repeated unproven accusations against the longtime National Institutes of Health scientist while Democrats apologized for Congress besmirching his name and bemoaned a missed opportunity to prepare for the next scary outbreak. 

“He is not a comic book super villain,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, adding that the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic had failed to prove a list of damaging allegations. 

Fauci was the public face of the government’s early COVID-19 response under then-President Donald Trump and later as an adviser to President Joe Biden. A trusted voice to millions, he also was the target of partisan anger and choked up Monday as he recalled death threats and other harassment of himself and his family, the threats he said continue. Police later escorted hecklers out of the hearing room. 

The main issue: Many scientists believe the virus most likely emerged in nature and jumped from animals to people, probably at a wildlife market in Wuhan, the city in China where the outbreak began. There’s no new scientific information supporting that the virus might instead have leaked from a laboratory. A U.S. intelligence analysis says there’s insufficient evidence to prove either way — and a recent Associated Press investigation found the Chinese government froze critical efforts to trace the source of the virus in the first weeks of the outbreak. 

Fauci has long said publicly that he was open to both theories but that there’s more evidence supporting COVID-19’s natural origins, the way other deadly viruses including coronavirus cousins SARS and MERS jumped into people. It was a position he repeated Monday as Republican lawmakers questioned if he worked behind-the-scenes to squelch the lab-leak theory or even tried to influence intelligence agencies. 

“I have repeatedly stated that I have a completely open mind to either possibility and that if definitive evidence becomes available to validate or refute either theory, I will readily accept it,” Fauci said. He later invoked a fictional secret agent, decrying a conspiracy theory that “I was parachuting into the CIA like Jason Bourne and told the CIA that they should really not be talking about a lab leak.” 

Republicans also have accused Fauci of lying to Congress in denying that his agency funded “gain of function” research — the practice of enhancing a virus in a lab to study its potential real-world impact — at a lab in Wuhan. 

NIH for years gave grants to a New York nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance that used some of the funds to work with a Chinese lab studying coronaviruses commonly carried by bats. Last month, the government suspended EcoHealth’s federal funding, citing its failure to properly monitor some of those experiments. 

The definition of “gain of function” covers both general research and especially risky experiments to “enhance” the ability of potentially pandemic pathogens to spread or cause severe disease in humans. Fauci stressed he was using the risky experiment definition, saying “it would be molecularly impossible” for the bat viruses studied with EcoHealth’s funds to be turned into the virus that caused the pandemic. 

In an exchange with Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Virginia, Fauci acknowledged that the lab leak is still an open question since it’s impossible to know if some other lab, not funded by NIH money, was doing risky research with coronaviruses. 

Fauci did face a new set of questions about the credibility of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he led for 38 years. Last month, the House panel revealed emails from an NIAID colleague about ways to evade public records laws, including by not discussing controversial pandemic issues in government email. 

Fauci denounced the actions of that colleague and insisted that “to the best of my knowledge I have never conducted official business via my personal email.” 

The pandemic’s origins weren’t the only hot topic. The House panel also blasted some public health measures taken to slow spread of the virus before COVID-19 vaccines, spurred by NIAID research, helped allow a return to normalcy. Ordering people to stay 6 feet apart meant many businesses, schools and churches couldn’t stay open, and subcommittee chairman Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Ohio, called it a “burdensome” and arbitrary rule, noting that in his prior closed-door testimony Fauci had acknowledged it wasn’t scientifically backed. 

Fauci responded Monday that the 6-feet distancing wasn’t his guideline but one created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before scientists had learned that the new virus was airborne, not spread simply by droplets emitted a certain distance.

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