Opinion | Anthony Fauci on the Lab Leak Theory and Emailing Mark Zuckerberg - The New York Times

archived recording

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” In the past year and a half, Dr. Anthony Fauci has become a hero to some, including the owners of a deli in my neighborhood that sells a cocktail called the Fauci Pouchy. But he’s become a villain to others, people who hang on his every word to discredit him and question his motivations. To them, he’s “Dr. Flip Flopci,” the leader of “faucism.”

Those types have gotten some fuel after BuzzFeed and the Washington Post published thousands of Fauci’s emails from the early days of the pandemic. I find the emails mostly anodyne, but the right and conspiracy theorists are using them as more fodder, saying that Fauci lied about the need to wear masks and downplayed the Wuhan lab leak theory. To parse the politics from the science, I invited him to speak with me today. Dr. Fauci, welcome to “Sway.”

anthony fauci

Thank you. It’s good to be with you.

kara swisher

So let’s just start with the news, the most recent thing, which is the lab leak theory, which posits that Covid-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. The theory has become deeply politicized, muddled with former President Trump’s anti-China and really anti-Chinese rhetoric. It became a thing that some on the right glommed on to and the left kind of dismissed outright. In April of last year, President Trump announced that his administration had evidence that proves the lab leak theory, but never put it forth. Did you see any evidence?

anthony fauci

I mean, I haven’t seen it because I’m not sure it exists. What we’re seeing right now is a major increase in incidents of interest — that is, of tweeting, of speculation — but no real increase in definitive data or evidence whatsoever. And I think the people who look carefully at that really come away with saying, well, what is different now than what was known or being said a year ago?

There is this so-called intelligence that three members of the human lab were ill, requiring hospitalization. And I really wonder what the strength of that intelligence is, what the confidence in it is. It certainly has gotten bantered around. And I have said that if the intelligence is firm and real, then you should make sure we find out what the health records of those sick people are. But if it’s very weak, flimsy intelligence, then there’s nothing there. I always keep an open mind. I feel, as do the overwhelming majority of scientists who have knowledge of virology and knowledge of evolutionary biology, that the most likely explanation for this is a natural leap from an animal reservoir to a human.

kara swisher

A zoonotic leap.

anthony fauci

Right, exactly.

kara swisher

So what is the Biden administration now doing? Because one of it will require investigation.

anthony fauci

Well, I’m really not sure, Kara, exactly, to be quite honest with you. I don’t know exactly what the nature of that intelligence. Because the president has asked the intelligence community to look into this and given them 90 days to come back with information. I mean, it’s important. I support what the president’s done, and we all do because we all want to find out, really, what the origins were. But again, I get back to saying if you talk to the scientists with knowledge about viruses — because we hear a lot of people making statements that are really completely debunked.

kara swisher

Well, there’s a lot of expert virologists on Twitter. No, I’m teasing. But there are some reputable scientists, including epidemiologists like Dr. Ralph Baric and Dr. Marc Lipsitch, seem to think it’s possible it originated in a lab, or at least, they think the theory is worth checking out, which is what you’re saying here. But what makes you think the lab leak theory is improbable?

anthony fauci

Yeah, I mean, I think if you look at the history of how viruses evolve — look at SARS-CoV-1, look at MERS, look at Ebola. We still haven’t found the natural source of Ebola. And that’s been since 1976. So this is what happens. Look at influenza. Look at bird flu, H5N1, H7N9 that jumped species. This is a very, very natural thing. And if you look at the virus itself — again, I’m not an evolutionary virologist, but those who are look at the virus, and they say it’s absolutely totally compatible with something that evolved from bat viruses because of the closeness to. But we don’t have that extra link that’s come in, but there’s nothing they see in there that makes you think it was something that came from a lab.

kara swisher

So you support the investigation into this, correct?

anthony fauci

I think we should definitely try. Indeed, I have said that. As a scientist, I have always kept an open mind about things until they were definitively proven. So if an investigation gets us closer to that, then I certainly am in favor of that. The one thing that I feel we need to do, we better make sure that any investigation includes people who have real scientific knowledge about this and get the political aspects out of it. And also, there needs to be a combination of diplomacy together with scientific investigation, together with, I guess I would call forensics. They’ve all got to be together because if you go in an accusatory way, you will put the Chinese off even more than they are right now.

kara swisher

Well, they haven’t been particularly forthcoming on lots of issues.

anthony fauci

I mean, even when they’re not hiding anything, they act that way. I mean, if you look at the first SARS in 2002, they were not particularly forthcoming in what was going on. And what it was, was proven of being a natural occurrence. Yet if you look the way they acted early on, that’s the nature of the way the Chinese, when they have something that goes on in their own country, they just act in a very put-offish way. They’re not forthcoming with information. Does that mean that they’re really lying and hiding something? I don’t know.

kara swisher

So, Dr. Shi Zhengli, who’s a top virologist at the Wuhan Institute, claims her lab never held any source of the new coronavirus before the pandemic erupted. It’s not entirely clear if that’s the case. Do you believe her?

anthony fauci

I don’t know her. In fact, I’ve never met her. But I’ve talked to virologists who interact with her, and they say she’s a scientist who’s very talented, has a high degree of integrity, and is someone whose major purpose is to prevent outbreaks from occurring. As a matter of fact, she is one of the investigators who discovered the ultimate connection of SARS-CoV-1 to the animal kingdom. I don’t think very many people recognize that. And she is a member of the American Academy of Microbiology. So she is a very well recognized scientist.

kara swisher

Sol do you believe her on this? I mean, because they have pressures in China, and the government does shut things down.

anthony fauci

Kara, I don’t know her. I can tell you from her reputation, her reputation would have people believe her.

kara swisher

OK, all right. And do you ever think we’re going to find the source, given the Chinese are not being cooperative, it’s politicized here in this country?

anthony fauci

I hope so. If you look at the definitive proof that SARS-CoV-1 was the cause of the SARS outbreak in 2002, 2003, that took several years of scouting around in bats and other animals that come into the wet market to finally see the connection. It may take years. And here’s the thing when I say if we’re going to get the answer, we have to do it with some degree of diplomacy. Because if we want to be part of the team that goes out there and finds out is there a connection with an animal that might have been brought in for many, many, many miles away into the Wuhan markets, we’re going to have to do that in collaboration with the Chinese.

kara swisher

Mm-hmm. The mainstream media reported on this theory with a lot of skepticism, calling it a conspiracy theory and using words like “debunked,” saying there’s virtually no chance it could be true. Did the media add to this mess?

anthony fauci

Yeah, I think what’s happened now, this certainly has become political. And again, I want to repeat, Kara, because what I said, I gave you the reason why. I want to make sure — and you’ll have to excuse me for that — because there’s a lot of people just waiting on every word to pounce, OK? And it’s a lot of it is anti-science — and I’ve said that before, and I’ll say it right now.

The fact is, I just gave you the reasons from speaking with and dealing with knowledgeable virologists and evolutionary biologists for years and years and years. Still, I do keep an open mind that it’s a possibility. So that’s the reason why you say, well, this person says it’s a possibility. And that person says there’s a possibility, almost in the context that I’m disagreeing with them. I’m not. I’m saying it is a possibility. I think it’s a very, very, very, very remote possibility. But it’s a possibility.

kara swisher

Mm-hmm, right. And so as the theory’s being re-examined with more credibility, say, in the media, and then it enters into politics — Republicans like Marco Rubio have accused you of downplaying the idea of a lab leak. Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul sent you a letter, demanding answers. What’s your response to them? Is that it’s a possibility, I’m happy to look at it, or a remote possibility?

anthony fauci

Yeah, of course. No, I say that. I say it over and over again. If you look back at the Jan. 31 when I was approached by some virologists, saying, there’s a possibility that this may — we haven’t looked at it as carefully as we should. He says, “We really want to let you know. What should we do?” They were asking my advice. And I said, “Well, let’s keep an open mind.”

So from the very beginning, I called a group together of international people. One of them was a good friend and a very established scientist. Jeremy Farrar was with us. We asked him to go and contact the W.H.O. to let them know. I let the Department of Health and Human Services know, the leadership. So that’s the reason why I get frustrated when people say, well, he was hiding it from the public. Look at the facts. The facts say I was not.

kara swisher

One of the things that did happen is people dismissed Tom Cotton, who very early on pointed to the possibility. I mean, when you actually go look at what he said, he wasn’t particularly being political. He was talking about the possibility. Did he get pulled into the same thing?

anthony fauci

I don’t actually recall exactly the circumstances of when he came out and said that, but I think when a person in good faith comes out and says, “I have some doubts, and I would like to pursue this further,” that’s nothing incompatible with what we’re saying. Right now, the way you’re presenting it, Kara, I have no problem with what Cotton said when he said, let’s look into it. It’s when they get it into the political arena and say, ah, you were lying about this. It has to be this. It’s unquestionably this. They don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that. That becomes a political issue.

kara swisher

OK, so I’m going to move on to your emails. Thousands of your emails dating from January to June of 2020 have recently been released by BuzzFeed and the Washington Post that’s giving your critics, particularly on the right, more material to work with. Your redacting of Mark Zuckerberg have added fuel to the fire. Representatives Jim Jordan and James Comer and Senator Marsha Blackburn have alleged that you worked with Facebook to censor speech. And you’re just laughing at me, right?

anthony fauci

[LAUGHTER} No, no, the reason I’m laughing, Kara, because every single one of those emails can be explained in a way that is perfectly normal, perfectly innocent, and completely above board.

kara swisher

Were you trying to get help with your Instagram? What was happening?

anthony fauci

No, no. Well, I don’t know who redacted that. When people ask for my emails, I don’t look through my emails and say, “OK, I’ll give you this one and redact this.” It’s completely out of my control. So you want to know what the email was really about? Hey, big scoop. Here we go. Mark said, hey, is there anything that we can do to help out to get the messages out, the right public health messages? I have a very important medium here in Facebook. Can I help? And as a matter of fact, if you guys don’t have enough resources and money to do some of the things you want, just let us know. It was about as friendly and innocent an email as you could possibly imagine.

kara swisher

So not about whether to censor speech related to Covid, anything else.

anthony fauci

Oh, absolutely 100%. And any thought of that is total conspiracy theory and total flight of fantasy.

kara swisher

Did you sense that these emails were going to be released before they were published?

anthony fauci

I actually get so many FOIA requests for things. I mean, it’s just a big institution. We’re a very visible group. Quite frankly, I didn’t know that there were thousands and thousands of emails that got sent out. I didn’t even know that. So I didn’t get worried about it because I never — I didn’t say anything in the email that I was worried about.

But once I knew that it got out there and it was going to get very carefully scrutinized by very far-right, radical people who clearly are trying to discredit me — no doubt about that — that’s political. It’s clear. It’s anti-science, and it’s anti-me. I said to myself, it is likely, I know, that you can pull out sentences from emails or take emails out of context or take an email that is perfectly innocent, followed up by an explanation, and only show one aspect of it. We know that’s being done.

kara swisher

Right, so in 2020 in February, you advised Sylvia Burwell, the former Health and Human Services Secretary, that she did not need to wear a mask while traveling, especially since she was flying to a low risk location. That is something that people are focusing in on. And let me just be clear, my brother, who’s a doctor, said the same thing to me at that time, like probably it’s not going to help, and this and that. And you should save them for health care workers, was his — he’s an anesthesiologist. So did you worry at the time in hindsight that you should have waited before commenting on these issues?

anthony fauci

OK, so Kara, allow me to explain that, plus one other thing that gets thrown around by people who all they want to do is give ad hominems and, quite frankly, have no idea what they’re talking about. Back early on, when we were talking about masks and whether you should wear masks was at a time that there were very, very few infections here. And there were three aspects that dictated that discussion. One, we were told right in the situation room that there would be a shortage of masks because everybody went out and bought a mask, because people were going to buy N95s. And given the personal protective equipment, we did not want to create a situation where healthcare providers who absolutely needed masks wouldn’t get it. Point number two, at the time, there was no real evidence that masks worn outside of the setting of the hospital actually worked to protect you. And number three, we did not know at the time that about half or maybe more of infections were transmitted by people who had no symptoms. So those are three things. Hold on to that.

At the time that I said to Sylvia that you don’t necessarily need to wear a mask and where I even said publicly you don’t need to wear a mask, you know who agreed with me? The entire Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the C.D.C, and the Surgeon General of the United States. Yet that is being fashioned as an anti-Fauci thing. OK, now let’s fast forward. What did we learn in the subsequent month or two when I changed and said, everybody should wear a mask? A, there was no shortage because we found out that cloth masks actually work. Number two, analyses that were published that showed, for the first time, that guess what? Outside of the hospital setting, masks actually work to protect you and to prevent you from spreading. And three, we learned to our horror that about 50% of the infections were being transmitted by people who didn’t even know they were infected.

So that is the reason why I changed my mind. So the people who are giving the ad hominems are saying, ah, Fauci misled us. First, he said no masks, then he said masks. Well, let me give you a flash. That’s the way science works. You work with the data you have at the time. It is essential as a scientist that you evolve your opinion and your recommendations based on the data, as it evolves. That is the nature of science. It is a self-correcting process. And that’s the reason why I say people who then criticize me about that are actually criticizing science. It was not a change because I felt like flip flopping. It was a change because the evidence changed. The data changed.

kara swisher

Right, one of the things I was thinking about is that the idea of public health is things evolve, right? But that’s impossible in this twitchy noisy culture now. Is there another way you’re going to have to go through public health? Because the most part, people had trust in what you said. And if you say I made a mistake or things have changed, people accepted it. They don’t accept it now. Do you think you can now, these days, be wrong in public health or not have enough information?

anthony fauci

You can be wrong if you’re dealing with information that is evolving. I mean, if, all of a sudden, I started to say that smoking is not deleterious to your health, that would be dead wrong because all the data show it’s highly deleterious to your health. But when you’re dealing with a rapidly evolving pandemic, things change. So it isn’t a question of being wrong. It’s a question of going with the data as you have and being humble enough and flexible enough to change with the data. So if you want to say, was I wrong back then when I said, you don’t necessarily need to wear a mask, well, based on what we know now, that definitely was wrong. But based on what we know then, it wasn’t wrong.

kara swisher

And when you’re dealing with an evolving situation that has politics, it’s even worse.

anthony fauci

Well, politics clouds the whole thing. I mean, it’s so obvious. I know, obviously, in this interview, you can’t, in any way, take sides. But the nonsense that’s going on now, the stuff that’s being thrown around — criminal charges, blood on your hands. What in God’s name are you talking about?

kara swisher

Are you surprised? Did you think it was going to stop when President Trump left office?

anthony fauci

No.

kara swisher

Or did you imagine it would get worse?

anthony fauci

No, I didn’t think it was going to stop Bbcause the same people who are out there lying about other things, why should they stop lying now?

kara swisher

Yeah. Let me just be clear. Roger Stone recently compared you to Hitler. Governor Ron DeSantis is saying that Florida chose “freedom over faucism.” When you’re talking about using ad hominem, what are your thoughts on the use of your name to denote notions of authoritarian control or mind control or whatever the heck they think you are up to?

anthony fauci

Kara, what I do is I’m a public health official and a scientist who’s devoted my entire 50-year medical career, 40 of which have been in public health, to saving lives — and, in fact, saving millions of lives. So what I do is I concentrate on my job. And when I concentrate on my job, I put very little weight in the adulation and very little weight in the craziness of condemning me. Now, the other thing is that it gets preposterous. And the thing that bothers you most of all is the impact it has on your family. I mean, getting death threats and getting your daughters and your wife threatened with obscene notes and threatening notes is not fun. So I can’t say that doesn’t bother me. I mean, the more extreme they get, the more obvious how political it is. Fauci is like Hitler. Fauci has blood on his hands. Are you kidding me? I mean, anybody who is just thinking about this in a dispassionate way has got to say, what the heck are those people talking about? Here’s a guy whose entire life has been devoted to saving lives, and now you’re telling me he’s like Hitler? Come on, folks. Get real.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Anthony Fauci after the break.

When you are out there as a public face of these things, in order to explain it to the public, is that too much of a cost for public health officials?

anthony fauci

Well, I know several of my colleagues are now reticent to talk out about anything now. This is an organized — I mean, I’m telling you things that people with greater insight than I are convinced of, that this is an organized effort to be able to essentially discredit the truth. The truth has disappeared. And I mean, people who think that Jan. 6 was a friendly visit to the gift shop at the Capitol, I mean, come on. It’s complete distortion of reality.

kara swisher

So when you’re saying it’s an organized effort to discredit the truth and especially about you, do you have proof that they’re doing that? You’re just watching it?

anthony fauci

No, I don’t have any proof. No, I don’t have any time. It just seems to me really rather strange that everyone says the same talking points. You have people who absolutely have no idea of what they’re talking about with virology are talking about furin cleavage sites. Like, who gave you that talking point?

kara swisher

Yeah.

anthony fauci

Come on.

kara swisher

I’m old enough to be around for the whole AIDS crisis and your incredible work related to it, but you vehemently disagreed with the Reagan administration during the AIDS epidemic — and they were quite slow to move with this more marginalized group of people — and then with Trump during Covid. How do you compare them? Because that was a political time.

anthony fauci

Yeah, they’re very different.

kara swisher

Tell me how.

anthony fauci

I mean, it’s black and white. I mean, back at the time during the Reagan administration, when he did not use the bully pulpit as much as I would have liked him to do to call attention to an emerging outbreak and had people around him who clearly were homophobic, it was a tough situation. It was by people who even though I disagreed with what they were doing, they never really were completely violating the tenets of the organization. They had respect for government. They had respect for the Congress. They had respect for the judicial branch. I mean, it was government working. You could disagree with them, but it wasn’t the complete whatever it is that’s going on right now. To me, that’s scary for our democracy, quite frankly.

kara swisher

So, in the larger picture throughout the whole pandemic, the political divide has informed everything, from mask wearing to vaccine hesitancy. Do you think this divide is surmountable, or have we gone too far? What is your hope? Is it social media that has to be pulled back?

anthony fauci

I’m not sure how we’re going to get out of this situation. I do know that social media can be a way of spreading important positive information. But the junk that gets put on that is frightening because it’s so distorted that you have people read it and they follow it. I understand people like it. I don’t have a Twitter account so I don’t know.

kara swisher

Do you use Facebook?

anthony fauci

No, I don’t. I mean, you’re talking to the wrong person when it comes to social media.

kara swisher

There’s a lot about you on it, just so you know. Just FYI.

anthony fauci

Yeah, so I hear. I mean, sometimes they put it in front of me, but now I just don’t even want to look at it anymore. So for those of you who think you’re affecting me with it, sorry, I’m not looking at it.

kara swisher

I’m interested in your thoughts on medical disinformation on Facebook. Mark is asking you what he can do. With this medical disinformation, what should the platforms be doing?

anthony fauci

Again, Kara, I will get criticized if I make recommendations for things outside of my area of expertise. I’ll stick to the science. I’ll stick to the public health. I don’t know how to correct misinformation on social media. I wouldn’t know how to do that.

kara swisher

I do think they need to do something more about it. It’s a very difficult thing because they’ve been charged with running all of society. And they’re very bad at it. So that’s the problem we have, is that they are incapable to the task, Facebook in particular. I’m not sure what they should do — labels, fines. But they do stop people from getting the treatment they need. But when you’re talking about what’s coming next, there’s something you’re worried about, that you’re watching for next?

anthony fauci

Yeah, 20 years ago, people would ask me the same question. And if you go back over the records, which is easy to do, you would see that I consistently gave the same answer. And that is the emergence of a new virus, a respiratory borne virus that would jump species from an animal host to a human that would have two characteristics. One, it would be highly efficient in transmissibility through the respiratory route. And two, it would have a very high degree of capability of morbidity and mortality for the human population. And unfortunately, we’re living through my worst nightmare.

kara swisher

Well, do you have a worse than worst nightmare?

anthony fauci

No, actually, right now, what I’m saying to myself is that if this happens now, which it is, that it can happen again. And it could even possibly be worse. This is an unusual virus because about a third to 40 percent of the people get no symptoms at all. Yet it’s capable of killing 600,000 Americans. We’ve never had a situation like that where a virus that would be benign or almost half the people or 40 percent of the people and yet kill so many people.

So the possibility that can occur in the future that you could get a pandemic that would be, essentially, more uniform in its deleterious effect, we have two ways of preparing. You’ve got to prepare at the global level, have universal standards of communication, of surveillance, of those kinds of things, diagnostic capabilities. And you’ve got to make an investment in science. The investment in science that we have made over decades allowed us to do what some people would have thought was impossible — to go from the awareness of a new virus in January to a highly effective vaccine in December.

kara swisher

And what about this vaccine technology, the use of mRNA, for example? How close are we to the same technology for flu or H.I.V. vaccines, a cancer vaccine?

anthony fauci

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, one of the positive — the silver lining, if you want to call it that, of this is that we have been able to show the extraordinary power of certain vaccine platform technology. For sure, it’s already being pursued in the realm of H.I.V., in the realm of influenza, in the realm of a variety of other infectious diseases. So the technology that was spectacularly successful with SARS-CoV-2 is absolutely going to put us a step ahead with other infections.

kara swisher

Right. So one last question. If you could go back to February 2020, what’s one thing that you would change that you did, right now, knowing what you know now? And I know that’s an easy thing to say — even not knowing what you know now.

anthony fauci

Well, no, knowing what I know now, Kara, back then — but I don’t think it would have worked because I don’t think I would have convinced anybody. So let’s go back to the first case that we recognized was Jan. 21. There was a handful of cases as we got into —

kara swisher

Possibly even earlier.

anthony fauci

Yeah, that we didn’t recognize, right. If we had said then, let’s shut everything down, if I had said that, people would have looked at me like I was crazy. Are you talking about shutting down the government when you’ve had 17 cases? No way. But looking back, at would have might have stopped this a bit? It would have been that. But that would have been unacceptable to society. Even now, when we have absolute proof that this virus has killed 600,000 Americans, we still have people that don’t want to get vaccinated.

kara swisher

Yep, one of my relatives. It’s very disturbing. I don’t even know what to say at this point. What do I say to this relative who is like, herd immunity, I’m not going to get sick? What do you say?

anthony fauci

I mean, I think there’s a lot of people — well, let me be clear, Kara. I believe that there are a lot of people who don’t want to get vaccinated that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them at all. They just need more information. So you know what the best way to get to herd immunity is? Get vaccinated.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen; edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; with original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin, and Liriel Higa.

If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you so you can listen to it as you sip on a Fauci Pouchy, download any podcast app, then search for “Sway,” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/21/opinion/sway-kara-swisher-anthony-fauci.html#click=https://t.co/SyBeyGwnFA