For weeks, right-wing media—and all too often the media in general—has been reporting “mounting evidence” in favor of the idea that the virus behind COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. Republicans have been seizing on this supposed evidence not just as a means of inexplicably “redeeming” Donald Trump (because somehow saying “China virus” enough times means that Trump’s actions didn’t kill 900,000 Americans), but also for the purposes of waging an all-out slander war on Dr. Anthony Fauci.
From the beginning of the pandemic, Fauci’s attempts to provide reasonable and straightforward advice on how to handle the pandemic clashed with Trump’s efforts to downplay the threat, praise an ineffective drug as a “miracle cure,” and inject Americans with bleach and sunshine. Fauci’s blunt insistence on continuing to relay facts rather than toe the line of whatever Trump was selling that week generated “fire Fauci” signs at some of the earliest protests against social distancing, wearing masks, and common sense.
Over the last few weeks, a who’s who of the modern GOP have cranked up the dial, going after Fauci on both Fox News and the floor of the Senate. Sen. Rand Paul called Fauci a liar. Sen. Marsha Blackburn accused him of silencing examinations of the origins of COVID-19. Sen. Tom Cotton just skipped right past the idea of firing Fauci and said that the longtime public servant deserves to be in prison. Marco Rubio … said something to prove he’s all-in with Trump.
As Margaret Sullivan notes in The Washington Post, “Only in our anti-truth hellscape could Anthony Fauci become a supervillain.” That the supposed “new evidence” behind the lab leak theory has been revealed to be almost entirely a campaign organized expressly for the purpose of misdirecting blame away from Trump hasn’t slowed the assault one step. As with everything else over the last five years, Republicans are out to show that facts don’t matter and science doesn’t matter. Because they have only to make accusations, and the media will follow.
In 1954, attorney Joseph Welch famously boiled down his disgust over the character assassination of Joe McCarthy when he asked the senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
That same question could be aimed toward any of the Republican senators now engaged in daily attacks on Fauci—only when it comes to the term “decency,” the only response that could be expected from any of the Republican class of 2021 would be, “What’s that?”
Fauci is serving in exactly the same role he has held since 1984. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, an apolitical dedication to science in the interest of public health was sufficient to not only secure his position, but earn the praise of administrations both Republican and Democratic. It’s only in the current Republican era that sticking up for facts rather than rolling over to nonsense that actively generates public harm is considered a firing offense.
This isn’t a war on Anthony Fauci. It’s a war on anyone who will not bow down.
That the Republicans feel not just empowered, but comfortable, in waging this war against a figure who has the respect of colleagues, decades of experience, and a consistently high level of support in the American public only demonstrates that no one and nothing is off the table. In fact, the way that Republicans are trying to make this about Fauci rather than about a political figure is just another example of how the feedback loop now in play rewards the most outrageous action against the least deserving person.
Meanwhile, the supposed evidence on which Republicans launched this fresh assault looks less compelling by the day. Not only did the thousands of Fauci’s emails released through FOIA requests only show a hard-working official struggling to not take a position other than supporting the best available evidence, the articles driving the resurgence of the “lab escape” theory keep falling apart.
The Wall Street Journal “exclusive” that kicked off this run of attacks was authored by the same reporter who pushed false claims about weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq invasion. There was nothing in that article not already featured in a dubious “fact sheet” posted by an unnamed official on an obscure State Department website just one week before Trump left the White House.
A much-cited article from the scientific journal Environmental Chemistry Letters turned out to be nothing but an editorial cobbled together by a group of scam artists whose history was full of past failures, and whose background in no way qualified them to make the claims being put forward. That included one author who drove home his racism with images from cartoons, and another who previously stated that COVID-19 had been manufactured at a lab in North Carolina.
And on Wednesday, The Guardian reported that the so-called “smoking gun” being put forward as proof that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was the product of human engineering … is no longer quite so smokey. That’s because biologist David Baltimore walked back his previous claims about a particular feature on the virus showing signs of manipulation. Baltimore’s stepping back from that position came as a number of scientists lined up to show that the same feature is also found in other examples of coronavirus, including one that can cause the common cold. It also happens to be present on the SARS-CoV virus, strongly suggesting this is a smoking gun—of natural evolution.
It is still absolutely possible that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after infecting researchers there. President Joe Biden has asked for this possibility to be investigated. Dr. Anthony Fauci has asked that claims that workers at the facility fell ill in the fall of 2019 be followed up. But in terms of new evidence that supports the lab escape theory, there is none.
The World Health Organization experts who visited the site, including a representative from the United States, reported that the possibility of a laboratory origin for COVID-19 was “highly unlikely.” And when it comes to claims that the virus was somehow altered or “enhanced” to make it more infectious to humans, they concluded: “By comparing the available genome sequence data for known coronavirus strains, we can firmly determine that SARS-CoV-2 originated through natural processes.” Canadian researcher Bruce Aylward, who headed the team, and Australian virologist Dominic Dwyer have both recently stated that they have no reason to change that evaluation.
That doesn’t mean that anything is proven. From the outside, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed dissatisfaction with the level of cooperation provided by China. In particular, Tedros made it clear this failure to provide complete data on early cases of the disease made it impossible to provide certainty when determining the origins of the outbreak in Wuhan.
But at the moment, the best evidence indicates that SARS-CoV-2 evolved naturally and was passed to humans from animal hosts. If that changes, that change will get reported.
The scandal at the moment is not just that Republicans are attacking Fauci and undermining science to help Trump and generate anger among their supporters, but also that the news media was so quick to jump onto the idea that the lab escape theory was “covered up.” The lab escape theory was investigated and found unlikely. That was reported. That’s not a conspiracy, that’s accurate reporting. That single finding certainly won’t be the end of it. New investigations will bring new evidence, and when it arrives, it may require a massive revision of current thinking. Or not.
But for the moment, Republicans have shown once again that all they had to do is raise a claim that media did something wrong, and media will fall all over itself to address that claim … even if it means doing something wrong.