The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives recently authorized formation of a new Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. Peering into the murky Chinese origins of COVID-19, especially any connection to U.S. government funding, will be a top priority. And that’s as it should be.
Dr. Anthony Fauci will no doubt be a star witness. The former director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the NIH says he would welcome an invitation to testify on his role during the pandemic. Lawmakers should note, however, that in his recent deposition in the continuing case of The State of Missouri, et al. v Joseph Biden et al in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, Fauci responded to questions by saying that he could not recall… 174 times. New congressional inquiries might refresh his memory.
However, the subcommittee must concentrate more on “The Science” than on Dr. Fauci. Throughout the pandemic, federal officials who claim to represent “The Science” gave mixed messages. This left citizens eager to follow “The Science” frightened and confused.
Take, for instance, the issue of masking and mask mandates. The mixed messages had a tremendous effect on all Americans, especially schoolchildren.
On this topic, Dr. Fauci’s recent deposition was revealing. In a February 2020 email, Sylvia Burwell, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asked Fauci whether she should wear a mask at the airport in her travels. He replied:
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 drugstore is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep [sic] out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you’re going to a low-risk location.
So, Fauci expressed privately to a former colleague a strong conviction that cloth masks were ineffective. That view was broadly shared by other senior federal public health officials, including both Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Fauci’s colleague at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and former Surgeon General of the United States Jerome Adams. Indeed, in a March 2020 social media message to the public Dr. Adams warned: “Seriously, people, STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing the general public from catching Coronavirus.”
Fauci’s initial response to Burwell’s question was in accord with previous scientific research. Furthermore, in the following months, peer-reviewed literature on masking and viral infection confirmed Fauci’s initial advice. For example, a May 2020 review of the professional literature on the subject for the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, concluded “In pooled analysis, we found no significant reduction in influenza transmission with the use of face masks.” Also in May 2020, researchers writing in The New England Journal of Medicine observed: “We know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection.” In March 2022, a British Medical Journal study on the masking of Spanish school-aged children found that cloth face masks “…were not associated with lower SARS-CoV-2 incidence or transmission, suggesting that this intervention was not effective.”
Yet, in April 2020, the federal government’s masking advice took a 180-degree turn. The CDC recommended that all Americans wear masks, and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield went as far as to declare in a congressional hearing that face masks would be even more effective than a (yet unavailable) Covid-19 vaccine.
The CDC recommendations were quickly translated into state and local mask mandates (sometimes, as in New York City, with stiff fines) throughout the nation. In January 2021, CDC imposed a mask mandate on persons taking public transportation, which was subsequently struck down in federal court because CDC had no statutory authority to impose such a mandate.
Here’s the mystery. Why exactly did CDC masking policy change so dramatically in that brief period between February and April 2020? Did CDC conduct its own randomized controlled trial to determine the efficacy of either masking or the kinds of masks that would be most efficacious? The agency should have, of course, but it did not.
Did federal officials come into possession of some groundbreaking scientific research refuting previous peer-reviewed studies that had cast doubt on the efficacy of masking?
That question came during the Nov. 23, 2022, deposition:
Attorney: “How many studies were done between February of 2020, when you emailed Ms. Burwell and told her that ‘the typical mask you buy in the drugstore is not really effective in keeping out the virus, which is small enough to pass through the material” between when you said that and April 3rd of 2020, what studies were done of the efficacy of masks... in preventing the spread of- of- Covid-19?”
Dr. Fauci: “I could find those—and get them for you, but I don’t have them in my fingertips right now.”
Later during the deposition, Fauci said that he changed his mind about masking because by April of 2020 there was no feared shortage of masks for health care workers, and the public could get them without depriving these workers the much-needed protection that masks would provide.
Dr. Fauci also said that it had become clear that the virus spread from persons who did not have symptoms, and that masking would help stop asymptomatic transmission. Finally, he asserted, “Evidence began accumulating that masks actually work in preventing acquisition and transmission.”
Under further questioning, Dr. Fauci repeated that his view on masking changed due to “new” scientific evidence., Missouri’s attorney again, therefore, pressed the question about the science behind the masking policy.
Attorney: “Were there placebo-based, randomized, double-blind studies of the efficacy of masking that were done between February and April of 2020?”
Dr. Fauci: “I don’t recall. I’d have to go back and take a close look at the literature. I don’t recall.”
Attorney: “Have you seen any studies that contradict the efficacy of masking?”
Dr. Fauci: “There were some studies early on—I don’t know the dates of them—that made the statement that masks were not effective. When those studies were subject to statistical scrutinization, they were felt to be not definitive. Subsequent to that time, there have been studies to indicate that in situations where mask wearing was compared to not mask wearing, that masks clearly have an effect.”
While lawmakers may want to trust Dr. Fauci on this point, they must verify it.
Maybe Dr. Fauci can produce those studies he did not have “at his fingertips.” Perhaps at some point between February and April of 2020 there were novel studies on the effectiveness of masks, including the advantages of the mandatory masking of schoolchildren. Conceivably, new evidence was “accumulating” that, contrary to previous studies, masking was broadly effective in preventing viral infection and transmission. Perhaps the “statistical scrutinization” of previous studies on masking did indeed reveal flaws.
Lawmakers can resolve these questions by securing the more recent scholarship that Dr. Fauci alludes to as refuting previous masking studies. It would also be edifying to know who, in fact, did the “statistical scrutinization” and if—and where—it was published.
What matters is the science, not Dr. Fauci’s memory.
For lawmakers, Fauci’s role during the pandemic is just one item on the congressional oversight agenda. As outlined in a Heritage Foundation Special Report, a dozen other areas are ripe for congressional inquiry, ranging from the debacle of diagnostic testing and flawed vaccine policies to the impact of lockdowns and school closures. The federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is, unfortunately, a target rich environment. Understandably, many members of Congress, like millions of their constituents, are angry.
But a word of caution. A scattershot, highly inflammatory process of congressional investigation will not serve the American people well. Lawmakers should not allow themselves to transform these necessary probes into tiresome “gotcha” political theater—a powerful temptation in our polarized political environment. Rather, House and Senate investigators need to target the specific rationale for each of the major federal policy recommendations over the past three years, with a view toward forging positive legislative changes that would enable the federal government to perform better when the next pandemic hits America’s shores.
Robert E. Moffit, PhD, is a Senior Fellow in Health and Welfare Studies at the Heritage Foundation.