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.
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.
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.
… 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: This column was edited for space. The full fact check, which also details the claim that Fauci lied about hydroxychloroquine, and more details concerning shifting guidance on the mask mandate, can be read at Factcheck.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer advocate for voters.
SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in its articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.