Republicans have renewed attacks on US infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci after the release of a trove of his emails.
On conservative news channels, Dr Fauci – who now serves as US president Joe Biden’s pandemic adviser – has been pilloried as a liar who misled the American people about the origins of Covid-19 to protect the Chinese government.
Republican calls for his resignation have grown louder in US congress, alongside demands for new investigations into the origins of the coronavirus.
Republican senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a potential presidential hopeful, is calling for Dr Fauci’s resignation and a full congressional inquiry. He said: “Given what we know now, I don’t know how anyone can have confidence that he should remain in a position of public trust and authority.”
Dr Fauci has been a political lightning rod since the early days of the pandemic, lionised by the left as a beacon of truth in an administration that badly mismanaged the pandemic, but villainised by the right as a misguided, spotlight-seeking bureaucrat seeking to undermine former president Donald Trump.
The moves by Republicans represent a new effort to find a reliable foil in the first few months of the Biden administration, as they have struggled to turn public sentiment against the new president.
So far, Mr Biden has enjoyed widespread job approval, buoyed by the public’s broad backing of his handling of the pandemic, which 71% of Americans support, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
Dr Fauci, who has not commented on the row so far, has repeatedly defended his work, saying he received thousands of emails and has never ruled out any theory on the origins of the virus.
He told CNN: “I still believe the most likely origin is from an animal species to a human, but I keep an absolutely open mind that if there may be other origins of that, there may be another reason, it could have been a lab leak.”
The doctor’s newly released emails, which span the early days of the pandemic and were obtained by BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post, show no evidence of any kind of cover-up about the origin of the coronavirus.
Indeed, many of the discussions reflect the science at the time. But many Republicans, including Mr Trump, have seized on the emails as proof of a conspiracy to obscure the source of the virus.
In one email, from February 1 last year, Kristian Andersen, a researcher at the Scripps Research Institute, wrote to Dr Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about ongoing efforts to decipher the origin of the novel coronavirus.
At the time, the lab leak hypothesis was largely dismissed by experts. It has recently gained traction, though the origins of the virus remain unknown.
Mr 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.”
He said he and his colleagues “all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory. But,” he added, “we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change.”
By the next month, it turned out, they had. He and his colleagues published an article in Nature Medicine in which they concluded that it was “improbable that SARS-CoV-2 emerged through laboratory manipulation of a related SARS-CoV-like coronavirus”.
In another email, Dr Fauci was thanked by the head of a non-profit that helped fund research at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, “for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin,” which, he said, “will help dispel the myths being spun around the virus’ origins”.
Mr Andersen, the scientist who wrote the “engineered” email, has tried to offer further explanation.
“As I have said many times, we seriously considered a lab leak a possibility. However, significant new data, extensive analyses, and many discussions led to the conclusions in our paper. What the email shows, is a clear example of the scientific process,” he tweeted amid the backlash.
“It’s just science,” he later added. “Boring, I know, but it’s quite a helpful thing to have in times of uncertainty.”
Mr Trump frequently flouted Dr Fauci’s recommendations on battling Covid-19 and played down the severity of the pandemic, while touting unproven scientific remedies, including a malaria drug and even injecting disinfectant.
The former US president also tried to undermine Dr Fauci’s credibility by refusing to acknowledge the evolution in scientists’ understanding of the virus and how it spread, which informed guidance about policies such as wearing face masks.
Mr Trump is expected to yet again go after Dr Fauci when he returns to the public stage in a speech in North Carolina on Saturday night. He sees the emails as further vindication that he was right about the doctor, according to an adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
“There are a lot of questions that must be answered by Dr Fauci,” Mr Trump said in a statement this week. “What did Dr Fauci know about ‘gain of function’ research, and when did he know it?”
“Gain of function” refers to enhancing the severity or transmissibility of a virus.
The White House has made it clear that it is standing with Dr Fauci, despite the criticism.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week praised Dr Fauci as “an undeniable asset in our country’s pandemic response”, and Mr Biden felt compelled to poke his head back into a room full of reporters he’d departed Friday to say that he was “very confident in Dr Fauci”.
In a sign of support, Dr Fauci will join first lady Jill Biden for a visit to a vaccination clinic in New York on Sunday.
Biden administration officials and allies point to polling showing Dr Fauci is still one of the country’s most trusted public health communicators.
Privately, they see the GOP’s focus on Fauci as a ploy to energise their base that likely will not resonate with moderate voters. And they are happy to compare Dr Fauci’s record on public health with Mr Trump’s.
Andy Slavitt, Mr Biden’s outgoing senior Covid-19 adviser, tweeted: “A note to Fauci critics.
“For years, he has been working tirelessly on the development of the mRNA vaccine in anticipation of a potential major viral outbreak. And on Jan 11, 2020, his team downloaded the gene sequence & on the 13th began work on the vaccine. So keep it down.”