WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci’s final White House press briefing descended into a near-shouting match Tuesday as he declined to comment on what he’s done to investigate the origins of COVID-19.
Fauci, 81, plans to retire next month after serving as the US government’s top infectious disease expert since 1984 and as President Biden’s chief medical adviser since last year.
“What have you done to personally investigate the origins of COVID?” Daily Caller reporter Diana Glebova attempted to ask Fauci, who has been a fixture at coronavirus briefings since March 2020.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who was moderating Fauci’s farewell Q&A, halted the briefing to reprimand Glebova — opening the floor for even more reporters to clamor for Fauci to answer the question.
“Hold on one second. We have a process here. I’m not calling out on people that yell. And you’re being disrespectful to your colleagues, and you’re being disrespectful to our guests,” Jean-Pierre scolded Glebova.
“I will not call on you if you yell and also you’re taking time off the clock because Dr. Fauci has to leave in a couple of minutes,” Jean-Pierre added.
The briefing room then erupted at as journalists from other news outlets, including Al Jazeera and The Post, put in their own requests for Fauci to answer. Other reporters said the interruption was disrespectful, arguing that final briefings are usually emotionally sensitive forums.
“Can we get an answer?” Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett chimed in.
“We need an answer, Dr. Fauci, on the COVID origins,” The Post said to Fauci. “Why are we still funding the EcoHealth Alliance, Dr. Fauci? Why are they getting millions of more dollars?”
“You need to call on people from across the room. She has a valid question. She’s asking about the origins of COVID and Dr. Fauci is the best person to answer,” added Today News Africa’s Simon Ateba.
“I hear her question,” Jean-Pierre responded. “I hear your question, but we’re not doing this the way you want it. This is disrespectful … Simon, I’m done. I’m done with you right now … you’re taking time away from your colleagues.”
Fauci’s agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, indirectly funded “gain of function” research — making viruses more transmissible and virulent — at the Wuhan Institute of Virology before the deadly pandemic began in the same Chinese city in late 2019.
Last month, Fauci’s agency announced $5 million in new grants for the same Wuhan-linked group, the EcoHealth Alliance, despite the US intelligence community assessing that a lab release was one of two “plausible” explanations for the pandemic’s origins, along with natural animal-to-human transmission.
Fauci had previously sought to tamp down early speculation that COVID-19 may have emerged from a lab leak, referring to the theory in emails as a “shiny object.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and other lawmakers expressed alarm at Fauci’s agency resuming grants to the EcoHealth Alliance after a pause linked to violations of grant conditions.
“This is like a bad sequel with the same plot and characters, but a bigger budget,” Ernst said at the time.
Documents published last year by The Intercept revealed that EcoHealth Alliance used US grants to fund Wuhan lab experiments that modified three bat coronaviruses distinct from COVID-19. The research discovered they became much more infectious among “humanized” mice when human-type receptors were added to them.
Jean-Pierre had a pull-aside with Fauci near the briefing room podium before calling on a final reporter to ask him a question.
Fauci did tell NBC’s Mike Memoli on his way out of the briefing that he would participate in House oversight hearings if they are convened next year by Republican leaders — after previously being more coy.
“If there are oversight hearings, I absolutely will cooperate fully and testify before the Congress if asked,” Fauci said. “You may not know, but I’ve testified before the Congress a few hundred times, okay, over the last 40 years or so. So I have no trouble testifying — we can defend and explain and stand by everything we’ve said.”
More than 1,073,000 Americans have died from the virus since March 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fauci and then-President Donald Trump began to clash months into the pandemic. Democrats generally viewed Fauci as a responsible public servant and as a respected voice of caution in reopening US society, but Trump allies slammed Fauci — including for not initially recommending protective face masks only to later urge wearing multiple masks, as well as for his agency’s links to the Wuhan lab.