By Zachary Stieber
Dr. Anthony Fauci said a surprising number of times that he could not recall when he was asked questions about the COVID-19 pandemic in a close-door session with a Congressional committee, top lawmakers said on Jan. 8.
“There may be over 100 or so, so far, ‘I don’t recall’, ‘I don’t remember’ answers,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) told reporters on Capitol Hill after Dr. Fauci answered questions for seven hours.
Dr. Fauci, the longtime head of the U.S. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) until around the end of 2022, was testifying to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. He was speaking in the private session under oath for the first time since he left office. The last time he spoke under oath, he also said he didn’t recall in response to a number of questions. Dr. Fauci was accompanied by two personal lawyers and two government lawyers.
Lawmakers were expected to ask about a range of topics, including Dr. Fauci’s shift on mask mandates and his support for lockdowns, but ended up mainly focusing on grants and oversight of research, Republicans on the subcommittee said.
“We’re doing a lot of conversation about the process of research, of grants, oversight, if you will, of regulations, and possible solutions for a better path going forward,” Dr. Wenstrup said.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) said that lawmakers were going through the grants process with Dr. Fauci and trying to figure out whether any U.S. money helped fund the creation of COVID-19. She said that Democrats did ask Dr. Fauci briefly about his involvement with a paper that claimed COVID-19 could not have come from a laboratory, even though the paper did not show that, and that Republicans might delve into that later.
Part of the private session drilled down on how Dr. Fauci defines gain-of-function, which is known to many scientists as enhancing the pathogenesis or transmissibility of a virus or pathogen.
Dr. Fauci has claimed that his agency did not fund gain-of-function research in China, even though a report from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), of which the NIAID is part, concluded that NIAID-funded experiments resulted in the creation of a bat coronavirus that made mice sicker.
“The one thing that’s been most interesting is a new definition that we’ve heard, and Dr. Fauci refers to this as his operational definition of gain-of-function,” Dr. Wenstrup said. “It’s something that we need to look into a little bit more. And so I think in the future, if he’s discussing this and he’s talking about gain of function, he needs to define his definition of gain-of-function research.”
Dr. Wenstrup later said he would be going back to review exactly what Dr. Fauci said and that lawmakers might have received the definition already. Then, he said he was surprised by the repeated answers of “I don’t recall.”
“I think what I’m most surprised about is how much he doesn’t recall considering the severity of this event for the world, and that he was the face of the government’s response to COVID,” Dr. Wenstrup said.
Dr. Fauci was part of the COVID-19 response team under former President Donald Trump. He became President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser after President Biden took office in 2021.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said during a break that lawmakers were “getting very good information,” including “good, detailed descriptions of what NIH does” and how they’ve operated against previous viruses as they emerged.
The private session “is helping us get the facts,” she said.
Dr. Fauci is scheduled to sit for another seven hours of questioning on Jan. 9. According to the subcommittee, he has also agreed to testify at a public hearing in the future. A date for that hearing has not yet been set.
Joseph Lord contributed to this report.