Top government epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul traded accusations of "lying" about gain-of-function research at a Tuesday Senate hearing, continuing the long-running feud between the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director and the Kentucky senator.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky was also asked about continued health measures like mask mandates on public transportation and vaccine mandates for school children.
In his questioning of Fauci, Paul stepped close to the line of accusing Fauci of lying to Congress in previous testimony in which he said that the NIAID had never funded gain-of-function research in China. Citing a paper on research about bat coronaviruses, Paul said that U.S. money had essentially gone to the hazardous and controversial research – an assertion Fauci strongly objected to.
"I have never lied before the Congress, and I do not retract that statement," Fauci said. He added that the research Paul referenced was "judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain of function."
Fauci added: "You do not know what you are talking about quite frankly and I want to say that officially."
Paul's response was that the NIH's judgment "defines… away" work that essentially was gain-of-function."
"You're dancing around this because you're trying to obscure responsibility," Paul added
Walensky and Fauci – who is President Biden's top medical adviser – appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee. They each emphasized the importance of vaccines for stopping the delta variant in their opening remarks.
"The message from CDC remains clear... vaccination is the most powerful tool we have," Walensky said.
"The sobering news that you've already heard of is the fact that we are not challenged with a very difficult and problematic variant referred to as the Delta variant," Fauci said. "The fact is that, however... is that our vaccines... are very effective against this variant."
Fauci, meanwhile, also objected to any suggestion – which Paul denied he was trying to imply – that he or the NIH may be in some way responsible for the COVID-19 virus, saying that the viruses created by the research in question would be "molecularly impossible" to be the origin of the disease.
"You are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individual[s], I totally resent that and if anybody is lying here, senator, it is you," Fauci said.
The hearing is meant to take a look at "The Path Forward" out of the pandemic. But worry over the Delta variant has led some in the U.S. to call for the return of strict health measures from the pandemic's height. And that talk has led opponents of such measures to push back hard against moves they say would be counter-productive.
Los Angeles County on Friday ordered citizens to wear masks indoors, regardless of whether they were vaccinated, becoming the first major U.S. jurisdiction to backpedal on relaxing virus rules.
And the very next day, former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who served under former President Trump, said the CDC should adjust its guidance that people with vaccines don't need masks – which was rolled out in May with much fanfare – to bring back masking for all.
"Instead of vax it OR mask it, the emerging data suggests CDC should be advising to vax it AND mask it in areas with [increasing] cases and positivity- until we see numbers going back down again," Adams said in a tweet.
"No. No. No. Hell NO," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, replied to Adams.
Multiple governors have also gone on the record in recent days as opposed to bringing back mask mandates, though more diplomatically than Cruz.
"For over a year and a half, South Carolinians have learned about the virus, they know what to do to protect themselves from it, and the vaccine is available to anyone who wants it," a spokesperson for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, told WBTW.
"We are using the tool of vaccinations," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said, according to MyNorthwest.com. "That’s the ultimate answer to this pandemic. We don’t want to be wearing masks for the next 32 years – vaccines stop this thing dead."
Asked whether the federal government would continue its mask mandate for travel by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Walensky refused to say whether the current expiration of that requirement will be extended. But she did foreshadow potential complications from the delta variant.
"The discussion about masking on federal – on aviation and ships – is an interagency process not simply with CDC," Walensky said. "I will say a lot has changed since May 13, as you heard from Dr. Fauci we now have a variant circulating in this country that is you know at the time was less than 3% and is now 83%, and is much more transmissible. So we are continuing those conversations."
On vaccine mandates for entering grade school, Walensky said "that's premature at this point" to mandate vaccines for entering grade school. Both she and Fauci cited a lack of clinical trail data in the grade school cohort, in response to questions from Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.
The Democrats on the committee, meanwhile, raised concerns about the increase in the spread of the Delta variant and vaccine resistance.
"We are at a pivotal point in this pandemic," Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said. "We are now seeing a resurgence in COVID-19. Vaccination rates are plateauing and pandemic fatigue is setting in around the country."
Murray asked the panel what is the best way to stop the country from backsliding to the peak of the pandemic – Walensky said that is to get vaccinated.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., meanwhile touted the fast development of vaccines for the coronavirus as a major accomplishment of the Trump administration, as many red states have lower vaccine rates that blue states.
"One of the great things about President Trump and the Trump administration working with partners and funded by Congress was setting a world record in terms of developing really super effective vaccines in record time," Kaine said. "President Trump had COVID in October. He decided to get vaccinated in January."
Fox News' Ronn Blitzer contributed to this report.