On Tuesday, The Washington Post and then BuzzFeed News published previously unreleased emails from the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci. The emails were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allows journalists to request internal government emails.

The disclosures gave conservatives who have long questioned Fauci’s stewardship of the coronavirus response something to latch on to beyond shifts in his public comments. They argue that these private emails show Fauci wasn’t forthcoming or curious enough when he cast doubt upon the “Wuhan lab leak” theory and argued for a more cautious covid response than President Donald Trump.

The emails have been cited all over conservative media, with commentators often labeling them “smoking guns” and GOP lawmakers including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) re-upping their calls for Fauci to be relieved of his duties.

In a May 11 hearing, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asked top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci about NIH funding of research in China. (The Washington Post)

But what’s actually in the emails? And how does it square with everything else we know? Let’s run through a few of the big supposed smoking guns.

The lab leak theory

Of late, the theory that the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China — rather than naturally — has caught on, with previous skeptics like Fauci acknowledging the real possibility that the theory is worth further exploration. This has not been a proud moment for the scientific community or much of the news media.

But conservative news coverage of Fauci’s emails has often stretched beyond the idea that this was undersold to the assertion that Fauci was provided real evidence of a lab leak and completely disregarded it (or worse).

In a Feb. 1, 2020 email — very early in the virus’s life in the United States — immunologist Kristian G. Andersen wrote to Fauci stating that the virus had limited “unusual features” that might suggest manipulation in a lab.

“On a phylogenetic tree the virus looks totally normal and the close clustering with bats suggest that bats serve as the reservoir,” Andersen wrote. “The unusual features of the virus make up a really small part of the genome (<0.1%) so one has to look really closely at all the sequences to see that some of the features (potentially) look engineered.”

It is this point that conservatives hang their argument on, but there is more to the story.

Andersen offered that his team look into the issue. And they did, but they concluded several weeks later that the lab leak theory was indeed implausible. “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus,” the study said, while adding that “it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here.”

Apart from that, some have highlighted Fauci’s sharing information that pointed to the virus occurring naturally as some kind of proof that he was overly invested in that theory.

There is much in the emails that is redacted (which is an issue we’ll get to). But if this is the best evidence we have that Fauci unduly disregarded the lab theory, it’s not the most compelling. Even the email above regarded this possibility as unproven and that there was very little evidence — though evidence worth studying — of potential engineering.

Fauci certainly cast doubt on the lab leak theory. But he generally couched it as there being no real evidence of it, rather the conclusive evidence to disprove it, and he was doing so at a time in which most other scientists were doing the same thing. There is quite simply no evidence that Fauci was delivered anything amounting to solid evidence of a lab leak. It adds very little to what we already knew about the doubt he cast on this.

Those redactions, though, are worth questioning. In mid-April 2020, for instance, National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins sent Fauci a link to a Fox News report playing up the possibility of a lab leak with the subject line, “conspiracy gains momentum.” But both the rest of Collins’s email and Fauci’s response are entirely redacted under the “deliberative process” justification.

Doubting the efficacy of masks

Another popular line of attack on Fauci involves his initial comments downplaying the need for the general public to wear masks. And, again, there is plenty of grist for that mill, given that guidance was later reversed.

Fauci even acknowledged publicly a year ago that part of the reason for his initial guidance against masking involved the possibility that because people would buy up masks and deprive the medical professionals who truly needed them of enough masks.

The emails show that Fauci was delivering this initial anti-masking guidance early on even to a prominent former health official. In a Feb. 5, 2020, email, Fauci told former Obama administration Health and Human Services secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell that she needn’t mask up.

“Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection. The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through material,” Fauci said. “I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low-risk location.”

Again, this was a very early email, shortly after the virus made its way onto American shores. And again, it doesn’t really show Fauci saying anything privately that he wasn’t saying publicly. It would probably be more concerning if he had been telling health officials like Burwell something different from what he told the general public. But he didn’t.

As with the lab leak theory, you can lay blame with Fauci’s initial commentary being overly declarative. But the email suggests this was indeed something that (at least very early on) was the consistent guidance based upon how he and other scientists understood things at the time.

The Zuckerberg email

Another popular claim is the idea that Fauci was somehow colluding with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg — an argument that dovetails nicely with the current conservative effort to decry big tech.

Zuckerberg, in a March 17, 2020, email to Fauci, offered his platform to help in disseminating information about the virus and mitigation measures. At issue here is another redaction of something a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases aide labeled as Zuckerberg’s “even bigger offer.” Fauci responded to the email saying he was “interested” in Zuckerberg’s ideas.

Critics noted that the redaction was deemed necessary not for the more-standard reason of “deliberative process,” but because of “trade secrets” — i.e. information related to a private business that is privileged or confidential.

“What’s the offer Zuckerberg made to Fauci?” Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked. “The redaction references ‘trade secrets.’ Must be challenged.”

The suggestion — which Ingraham didn’t state but that others have — is that perhaps Facebook was going to do something to tamp down on coronavirus misinformation (or, to put it less charitably, censor it).

It would indeed be great to know exactly why we can’t see what’s behind that redaction. But again, even if that interpretation is correct, would it really tell us anything new? We knew Facebook had taken certain steps intended to combat covid misinformation; it announced that later the same month. Those steps can arguably go too far, but they should probably be judged on their merits rather than on various government officials’ potential interest in the effort.

Hydroxychloroquine

The last one we’ll deal with here — but which probably doesn’t merit too much attention — is the idea that Fauci also disregarded supposed evidence on hydroxychloroquine.

Various conspiracy-oriented websites have highlighted late-February 2020 emails in which Fauci was supposedly overly dismissive about the potential effectiveness of the drug. This was a drug that Trump would later promote and the Food and Drug Administration would later temporarily approve on an emergency basis, before reversing course and citing its lack of efficacy and potential dangers.

But the emails involved include no real evidence that hydroxychloroquine was effective; instead they merely played up the possibility and urged study. Again, the argument is basically that a guy dealing with a pandemic was too cursory and uninterested in the theory. The simpler explanation is: He was busy and that there was very little real evidence to back it up.

Which is basically what Fauci said.

“There are no data in this brief report and so I have no way of evaluating their claim,” he wrote at one point.

“There are a lot of these types of claims going around,” he said at another point. “I would love to see their data.”

We know that the government did later study this treatment — and even approved it for a time — before deciding that it wasn’t efficacious and potentially did more harm than good.

But this argument, while relegated to rather extreme elements of the anti-Fauci movement, is emblematic of the claims against him stemming from these emails. The idea, consistently, is that Fauci didn’t respond appropriately to people bringing speculative or unproven information or ideas to his attention.

Almost all of it, though, matches up with his public commentary, which is probably what he should be judged upon until we truly find him saying something different privately.

In the end, I think the conservative National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty hits the nail on the head when it comes to how these emails contribute to the skeptic’s case against Fauci’s leadership:

In any case, like most data dumps that have careful redactions, the Fauci email trove has no smoking-gun evidence of wrongdoing. You could make the case, as I and others have, that Fauci had certain prejudices and dispositions that were deeply unhelpful in his leadership of the pandemic response — and you’ll find evidence of those here. He had a very strong bias against existing drugs and for new and experimental ones. He has been slippery on masks and clearly was willing to say things in public that he thought “helped” the response even if they weren’t strictly true.