Viral Posts, Pundits Distort Fauci Emails


SciCheck Digest

Thousands of pages of redacted emails to and from Dr. Anthony Fauci are now publicly available, thanks to journalists’ Freedom of Information Act requests. Some of those messages have been distorted in viral posts, particularly about face masks, the origins of the coronavirus and the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine.

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The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News each filed Freedom of Information Act requests for Dr. Anthony Fauci’s emails and published that correspondence on June 1, showing how the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases navigated the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The batch of emails requested by the Post were from March and April 2020, while BuzzFeed News’ spanned January to June 2020. BuzzFeed News also posted all of the 3,234 pages of the emails it got on a separate site.

Conservative pundits and viral social media posts have now mischaracterized some of those emails in an effort to discredit Fauci. We’ll look at three issues: what Fauci was told about the origins of the coronavirus, what he knew about the drug hydroxychloroquine and what he said about the use of face masks. 

Email Shows ‘Scientific Process’

Social media posts and a conservative TV host have highlighted one email to Fauci from Kristian G. Andersen, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research. Andersen has studied the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The posts and commentary point to the Jan. 31, 2020, email as proof that “Fauci knew the virus was likely engineered,” as one Facebook post puts it, or that something suspicious happened regarding an analysis published by Andersen and other scientists weeks later, concluding that “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” PolitiFact wrote about another Facebook post, which is no longer available, that claimed: “Fauci’s fellow scientist could tell early on that the (coronavirus) looked manufactured.”

But Andersen said the email shows “a clear example of the scientific process.” In his June 1 tweet, Andersen said, “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.”

Let’s start with the Jan. 31 email. Andersen wrote to Fauci: “On a phylogenetic tree the virus looks totally normal and the close clustering with bats suggest that bats serve as the reservoir. 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 continued: “We have a good team lined up to look very critically at this, so we should know much more at the end of the weekend. I should mention that after discussions earlier today, Eddie, Bob, Mike, and myself all find the genome inconsistent with expectations from evolutionary theory. But we have to look at this much more closely and there are still further analyses to be done, so those opinions could still change.”

So, Andersen said that there were “unusual features” of “a really small part of the genome” of the coronavirus that “(potentially) look engineered.” But he said that more analysis was necessary and his opinions “could still change.”

That’s exactly what happened, Andersen said on Twitter.

On March 17, 2020, Nature Medicine published an article by Andersen and other scientists on the origins of the coronavirus. “Here we review what can be deduced about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 from comparative analysis of genomic data,” they wrote.

They determined the virus likely originated through “natural selection in an animal host before zoonotic transfer,” or “natural selection in humans following zoonotic transfer.” They said they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” because they “observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features … in related coronaviruses in nature.”

But Andersen and his colleagues noted that “it is currently impossible to prove or disprove” the theories of origin they described. “More scientific data could swing the balance of evidence to favor one hypothesis over another. Obtaining related viral sequences from animal sources would be the most definitive way of revealing viral origins.”

Fox News host Laura Ingraham highlighted the Jan. 31 email on her June 2 show, adding that there was a phone call between Andersen, Fauci and others (the emails indicate there were a “series of calls” including one on Feb. 1) and that Andersen thanked Fauci before the Nature Medicine article was published. (In a March 6 email, Andersen sent Fauci and others a draft of the paper, writing, “Thank you again for your advice and leadership as we have been working through the SARS-CoV-2 ‘origins’ paper.”)

Ingraham then says: “Now, mysteriously, Andersen’s article debunking the lab leak theory and also signed by the other colleagues of course was a 180-degree turn from what he told Fauci in January,” saying that Fauci “influenced it.”

But Andersen said there was nothing mysterious about the change of his earlier opinion, nor was it a “massive cover-up” as one Australian journalist alleged on Twitter. “It’s just science. Boring, I know, but it’s quite a helpful thing to have in times of uncertainty,” Andersen said.

We don’t know what Fauci may have said to Andersen and his colleagues on that Feb. 1 phone call. Among the emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, there are several about the call, some of which appear to be notes and observations sent afterward, but they are heavily redacted.

Andersen posted a detailed answer to two questions raised by his email to Fauci: What about the virus looked engineered to him? And what made him change his mind? The June 4 Twitter post includes details about certain features of the virus that “did not seem to have an obvious immediate evolutionary precursor,” he wrote. But, after his email to Fauci, more data was released, including the full genome for a bat coronavirus that is 96% similar to SARS-CoV-2.

Andersen said the researchers conducted “much more extensive investigations,” including looking at the literature from the Wuhan lab and research techniques used there, and performing analyses of SARS-CoV-2. He said much was done in “a matter of days” leading the researchers to “relatively quickly reject our preliminary hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 might have been engineered.”

“This is a textbook example of the scientific method where a preliminary hypothesis is rejected in favor of a competing hypothesis as more data become available and analyses are completed,” he said.

As we’ve written recently, while scientists have found SARS-CoV-2 is similar to bat coronaviruses, the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2 remain unknown. The zoonotic transfer theory, which Fauci says he believes is “most likely,” hasn’t been proven, nor have theories of a lab accident.

But there have been many calls for more investigation, including by Fauci himself.

Baseless Claim About Hydroxychloroquine

Another narrative circulating online baselessly suggests that the emails prove Fauci “lied” to the public about hydroxychloroquine — an antimalarial drug touted by former President Donald Trump in 2020.

A story on the Gateway Pundit, shared on Facebook more than 8,500 times, declared: “SMOKING GUN: FAUCI LIED, MILLIONS DIED — Fauci Was Informed of Hydroxychloroquine Success in Early 2020 But Lied to Public Instead Despite the Science.”

The story points to a Feb. 29, 2020, email sent to former Vice President Mike Pence and copied to Fauci, in which two doctors suggest the drug could be effective against COVID-19 and suggest the U.S. government conduct or fund studies. Fauci forwarded the email to a deputy director who works in microbiology and infectious diseases, writing: “Please take a look and respond to them. Thanks.”

In another February 2020 email, a pharmacologist at the Food and Drug Administration inquired with Fauci on whether there was “any indication/data to substantiate this claim from China (attached publication) that chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine can decrease COVID-19 infections and lung disease?”

“There are no data in this brief report and so I have no way of evaluating their claim,” Fauci wrote back, noting that there were similar claims going around. “I would love to see their data.”

The pharmacologist then made reference to “data from 2005 showing inhibition of SARS infection.” SARS is the disease caused by SARS-CoV-1, a different coronavirus that caused an outbreak in 2003. We’ve explained before that a 2005 study found the drug prevented spread of that virus in cell culture — which is different than proving it works in humans, against a different virus.

Fauci still forwarded the email thread to an adviser at NIAID, writing, “Let us discuss.”

It’s worth noting that the government did fund a study evaluating the drug’s efficacy for patients hospitalized with the disease. That and a string of other studies, including other randomized controlled trials — the gold standard in science — did not find it helped hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

The Food and Drug Administration also issued an emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in March 2020 — allowing adult and some adolescent patients hospitalized with COVID-19 to obtain the drugs from the Strategic National Stockpile “when clinical trials are not available, or participation is not feasible.” But it revoked that authorization in June, finding that it was “unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19 for the authorized uses in the EUA,” and that the “known and potential benefits” of the drugs “no longer outweigh” the risks.

In short, the emails cited as a “SMOKING GUN” about hydroxychloroquine simply show that some people wrote to Fauci expressing the possibility that the drug could be effective against COVID-19. His responses show he engaged with the emails, at least to some degree. They don’t prove that hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment against COVID-19 — or that Fauci hid it from the public.

Fauci’s brief comments on the subject in the emails aren’t inconsistent with what he was saying publicly last year.

In March 2020, he said at a press briefing that reports of hydroxychloroquine’s promise in relation to COVID-19 were “anecdotal evidence” and that analyses to determine if it was safe and effective were underway. In early April 2020, Fauci was also asked on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” whether it was effective; he said that “the data are really just at best suggestive. There have been cases that show there may be an effect — and there are others to show there’s no effect.”

One Facebook post took the false hydroxychloroquine narrative even further, suggesting Fauci secretly endorsed the drug for those close to him while telling the public it didn’t work.

“According to new emails to and from Fauci, not only did Fauci admit that MASKS DON’T WORK, he also said that Hyroxychloriquine is effective and he recommended it to his own family and close friends,” the post, shared nearly 500 times before it was deleted, claimed.

Included in the post was a screenshot of one page of a lengthy email in which the author stated as much. But in reality that email was sent to Fauci — not from him, as the post falsely said.

Misrepresenting Mask Guidance

Face masks have generated controversy and falsehoods throughout the pandemic — we’ve written more than a dozen stories debunking various claims about them.

So it’s no surprise that one of the most widespread claims to have developed from Fauci’s emails is about masks.

Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, of Colorado, for example, tweeted, “Fauci lied,” with a screenshot of one of the emails.

The conservative outlet MRCTV posted a video claiming that the emails reveal that Fauci lied, face masks don’t work, and “Now millions of people are just supposed to line up in droves and stick out their arms for a vaccine being peddled by some of the same people who just got caught lying through their teeth in order to manipulate public behavior.”

These claims are based on an email that Fauci sent on Feb. 5, 2020, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had begun recommending the use of face masks for the general public.

At that point, early in the pandemic, the CDC recommended face masks for health care workers and those who had COVID-19 and were showing symptoms.

So, when Fauci responded to a question from Sylvia Burwell, the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, he gave her advice that was consistent with public guidance at the time.

Fauci, Feb. 5, 2020: 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 the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a vey low risk location.

While he wasn’t wrong — masks are most effective in slowing the spread of the virus because they help to contain the respiratory droplets from infected individuals, as we’ve written — the guidance about the use of masks changed. On April 3, the CDC reversed its earlier position and announced that it would recommend that people wear face coverings in public, citing new studies on the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (‘asymptomatic’) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (‘pre-symptomatic’) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms,” the CDC said in its announcement. “In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

This change in guidance from the CDC illustrates, too, how the understanding of science evolves and can change the recommendations.

Similarly, Fauci’s second sentence in the email — about the size of the virus — isn’t wrong, but the understanding of the efficacy of face masks in that regard changed.

Some social media posts have highlighted that section, in particular.

“Early on in the pandemic, prevention messaging was coming primarily from infectious disease experts who have little to no training in aerosol science,” Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at the University of Denver, told us in an email. “As the pandemic discussion has become more multidisciplinary, scientists and medical professionals of all descriptions have learned from one another, and realized that the narrow, disciplinary perspectives they may have started with were often insufficient to properly address the airborne nature of this particular disease.”

That includes aerosol scientists, who were able to add their expertise to the broader public health debate.

So, as Huffman explained to us, it’s true that the virus might be 0.1 or 0.2 microns and a paper or cloth mask wouldn’t filter something that small. But “viruses don’t fly out of your mouth by themselves. They are encased in droplets,” he said. Those droplets come from the lungs, nose or mouth and include proteins, salts and some viruses.

“It doesn’t matter how big the virus is, it matters how big the droplet is,” Huffman said.

While that may not have been widely understood by public health officials at the beginning of the pandemic, “to Dr. Fauci’s great credit,” Huffman said, “he changed his perspective, learned a little about aerosol physics, and started listening to a broader audience of experts, including aerosol scientists.”

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.


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