On Tuesday, they traded their most barbed public remarks yet, accusing each other of lying during a fierce debate over U.S. funding for a lab in Wuhan, China.
“Senator Paul, you do not know what you’re talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at one point. “You do not know what you are talking about.”
The argument, which echoed an earlier dust-up, centered on Paul’s claim that the National Institutes of Health awarded a grant that partially funded a project that relied on “gain-of-function” research, a controversial practice that involves enhancing a virus in a lab to try to anticipate future pandemics. This type of experimentation has come under growing scrutiny as U.S. intelligence agencies investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus and the theory that it could have accidentally leaked from a lab.
Officials have repeatedly denied Paul’s allegations, and in a hearing in May, Fauci told the senator that the National Institutes of Health “has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research” at the Chinese lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
On Tuesday, Paul suggested that Fauci had lied: “Dr. Fauci, knowing that it is a crime to lie to Congress, do you wish to retract your statement of May 11 where you claimed that the NIH never funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan?” Paul asked.
“Senator Paul, I have never lied before the Congress, and I do not retract that statement,” Fauci replied, adding that the research had been “judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain-of-function.”
Paul then accused Fauci of “dancing around this because you are trying to obscure responsibility for four million people dying around the world from a pandemic.”
“I totally resent the lie that you are now propagating, senator,” Fauci shot back.
On Tuesday, Fauci went further.
“You are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals,” he said. “I totally resent that. And if anybody’s lying here, senator, it is you.”
Fauci has been the target of right-wing opprobrium since the earliest days of the pandemic, with conservatives calling for him to be fired and also seeking a criminal investigation of his conduct. Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s political campaign printed shirts and beverage-can insulators reading “Don’t Fauci My Florida.” But for more than a year, Paul has fashioned himself as the Senate’s chief Fauci skeptic, and his attacks have grown more personal.
In a hearing in March, Paul pressed Fauci on recommendations that people who have been vaccinated or have contracted the virus should wear masks.
“You’ve had the vaccine, and you’re wearing two masks,” Paul said. “Is that just theater?”
“Here we go again,” Fauci responded.