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Almost everything Tucker Carlson said about Anthony Fauci this week was misleading or false

Tucker Carlson, a political commentator on Fox News, has long assailed Anthony Fauci for his role in the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during both former President Donald Trump’s and President Joe Biden’s administrations. But on 22 August, when Fauci announced he would be retiring from his jobs as director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and chief medical adviser to the president at the end of year, the Tucker Carlson Tonight host laid into him like never before.

Carlson asserted Fauci had committed “very serious crimes” and said he “apparently engineered the single most devastating event in modern American history.” Carlson, infamous for assailing people’s looks, also called Fauci a “an even tinier version of the Dalai Lama” and a “Stalinist midget.”

Carlson seems to relish criticisms of his comments, which inevitably draw more attention to him and his show. But at the risk of playing into his hand, Science fact-checked his criticisms of Fauci. The analysis shows Carlson took facts out of context and cited long-debunked studies or reports to attack Fauci. He also repeatedly blamed Fauci and other scientists for changing their minds based on new evidence—the bedrock of scientific progress. In Carlson’s calculus, such reversals equal lying.

Here are annotated fragments from a full transcript of the show posted on Fox News’s website.

“Imagine the pandemonium at SoulCycle studios across the Northeast this morning when Tony Fauci announced his retirement. Ugly doesn’t begin to describe it. Picture the chaos, if you can, in the organic chaga aisle at Whole Foods in Brooklyn. Try to envision the panic and hysteria that must have broken out at espresso bars in Edgartown and Aspen and Santa Monica and Bethesda …”

“[I]s it possible this thoroughly nonpartisan man of medicine has thought about what might happen in November when the Republican Congress takes over? Does he believe that could be bad news for him? Well, yes, it is possible he believes that because on some level, even Tony Fauci knows that Tony Fauci is, in fact, a dangerous fraud, a man who has done things that in most countries, at most times in history, would be understood perfectly clearly to be very serious crimes. So, it’s possible that Tony Fauci might want to resign before he has to explain all of that to a new Congress.”

FACT: Neither Carlson nor anyone else has presented evidence that Fauci has committed any crime.

“He might want to get out of town now and move to, say, Cambridge, find a safe place to hide before the reckoning. Just a thought because honestly, there’s a lot to answer for. In just the last 2 years, Fauci’s recommended treatments and preventative measures for COVID that not only didn’t work, but that he knew didn’t work. He admitted to The New York Times [NYT] that he lied about herd immunity in order to sell more vaccines, which also didn’t work, which weren’t even actually vaccines, but they did hurt a lot of people, tens of thousands.”

FACT: Epidemiologists initially estimated herd immunity would occur once 60% to 70% of the population had recovered from COVID-19 or received a vaccine, a figure Fauci repeated. He later upped that percentage, acknowledging that “nobody really knows for sure.” In the NYT article, which was published in May 2021, Fauci stressed that he stopped using the phrase altogether. “People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is,” he said. “That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense,” he added. “I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”

The vaccines do work: Abundant data show unvaccinated people have a far higher risk of dying from COVID-19. The risk difference has dropped as more unvaccinated people acquired natural immunity, but it remains. And the vaccines’ side effects remain rare; unvaccinated people face far greater risks from SARS-CoV-2 than they do from vaccines. Fauci does not sell vaccines, nor does he profit from their sales.

“Then he lied about masks publicly. ‘You should wear one as you’re riding a bike, you’re getting too much life enhancing oxygen. What you really need is more carbon dioxide. Be more like a tree.’ That’s what he was saying in public, but in private, he wrote that ‘The typical mask you buy at a drug store is not really effective at keeping out a virus.’”

FACT: Fauci never publicly uttered these supposed quotes. The private remark is from an email he sent in February 2020. Evidence about the effectiveness of masks at the start of the pandemic was limited. As Fauci has explained, he changed his mind about promoting the use of masks after it became clear there wasn’t a mask shortage, asymptomatic COVID-19 was common and was leading to many infections, and the virus could spread through aerosols. “It really was the evolution of the science,” Fauci said on The Rachel Maddow Show on 22 August.

“Oh, so he knew. As your kids were suffocating during gym wearing a mask, Tony Fauci knew they didn’t work and then there’s this, maybe his most notable crime. He didn’t simply downplay and obfuscate the origins of the pandemic, apparently in conjunction with the Chinese government. No. Tony Fauci covered up evidence that he, Tony Fauci, helped create that virus in the first place.”

FACT: The accusation that Fauci helped create the virus stems from a grant NIAID awarded to the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit in New York City, that gave a subcontract to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to study bat coronaviruses. WIV has been scrutinized for experiments that took a bat coronavirus its team found in China and grew it in laboratory cultures. To better understand the threats that other bat coronaviruses might pose to humans, they engineered the virus growing in culture to contain surface proteins from the other strains. The original virus caused lung damage in some mice, and a few of the new chimeric viruses caused even more severe disease than the original ones. But the engineered viruses were distant relatives of SARS-CoV-2 and could not have been manipulated to create it.

There is no evidence Fauci “covered up” information about this experiment, and indeed some of the details were published in PLOS Pathogens in 2017.

“… [T]he Intercept spoke to several virologists and found that, ‘seven said that the work appears to meet NIH’s [National Institute of Health’s] criteria for gain-of-function research.’ OK, gain-of-function research, that was going on. Not allowed in this country, so they were offshoring it in their various labs, including one owned by the Chinese government, a lot of biolabs in Ukraine.”

FACT: A group led by Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published a similar study that made chimeric bat coronaviruses at that school’s labs in 2015. Some researchers considered both the WIV and UNC work to be “gain-of-function,” but others, using a definition that required the original virus to be a known pathogen in humans, did not.

“What was going on there? Oh, shut up. Don’t ask. You’re working for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. Really? Well, at some point, somebody is going to ignore the threats and just go ahead and ask the question, why do we have all these biolabs in Ukraine of all places? It’s not like Ukraine is a hotbed of pharmaceutical research. What is that? We don’t know, but at some point, people are going to find out.”

FACT: Stories about biolabs in Ukraine being involved in creating bioweapons have been thoroughly debunked.

“… [V]irologists frantically told Tony Fauci in real time that gain-of-function research, funded in part by the U.S. government, was probably involved. In early 2020, Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, wrote this to Fauci, ‘Some of the features (potentially) look engineered.’”

FACT: Andersen did write that email. A few months later, Nature Medicine published a paper co-authored by Andersen that explained why the pandemic virus in all probability was not engineered. As Andersen has explained, his thinking evolved. “I cautioned in that same email that we would need to look at the question much more closely and that our opinions could change within a few days based on new data and analyses—which they did,” Andersen told NYT.

“David Baltimore, meanwhile, announced he had found the ‘smoking gun for the origin of the virus,’ what he called a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for SARS-2.”

FACT: Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and former president of the California Institute of Technology, subsequently backpedaled on this statement. The “smoking gun” referred to is the so-called furin cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2’s surface protein, which makes it easier for the virus to infect cells. In an email to a Los Angeles Times reporter, Baltimore wrote that he “should have softened the phrase ‘smoking gun’ because I don’t believe that it proves the origin of the furin cleavage site but it does sound that way. I believe that the question of whether the sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.” Baltimore told Science he did not know when he made the “smoking gun” comment that furin cleavage sites naturally occur in several known bat coronaviruses.

“… [Y]ou might remember that back in 2020, Tony Fauci declared that remdesivir, a drug made by the pharma giant Gilead, would be the solution to COVID. Do you remember this? He said, and we’re quoting, ‘this will be the standard of care.’ Now, when Tony Fauci says that, the guy in charge of our COVID response, is not a small thing, but when Tony Fauci said that, he said that knowing that the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] did not hold a single advisory meeting on that drug remdesivir, but for the low price of just $48,000 a dose, Fauci promised that remdesivir could shorten your hospital stay if you were ever to get COVID, like if your mask slipped for a second.”

“So, after months, the truth became impossible to hide as it has with the vaccine. Remdesivir doesn’t work as advertised. Even the WHO [World Health Organization] is now recommending against it. ‘There is a conditional recommendation against the use of remdesivir,’ says [WHO], ‘This means that there is not enough evidence to support its use.’ Oh, really? But what happened in the meantime? Well, Tony Fauci’s friends at Gilead, which has been a struggling company, according to some, made a ton of money.”

FACT: Fauci endorsed the use of remdesivir after FDA authorized its use in hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19—a controversial decision because clinical trials had shown mixed results and because the agency did not consult a group of outside experts. In October 2021, a large WHO study found the drug to be of no use, and WHO recommended against using it. But in April 2022, new clinical trial data led the agency to reverse course and recommend that remdesivir be used “in mild or moderate COVID-19 patients who are at high risk of hospitalization.”

Gilead—a large company that was hardly struggling before the pandemicdid profit considerably from remdesivir being used for COVID-19. But there’s no evidence Fauci hoped to help his “friends at Gilead.”

“… [O]n the question of the so-called vaccine, which is not a vaccine, by the way, you got the smallpox vaccine, you got the polio vaccine, you got the mumps vaccine. Did you get those diseases? Do you have mumps today? Did you get smallpox last week? Do you have polio? No, because those are vaccines, but you probably got COVID after you got the shot. Tony Fauci did.”

FACT: Carlson implies that in order for something to be called a vaccine, it must prevent disease completely. Many vaccines do, but some, including COVID-19 vaccines, don’t, even though they are effective against severe disease and death. This point was further confused by the first COVID-19 vaccines that came to market, which were extremely effective against disease in efficacy trials because they were designed with a strain of the virus that was then still in circulation. But influenza vaccines are used widely even though protection against disease hovers around 50% and some years drops much lower. Mumps outbreaks do in fact sometimes occur in vaccinated people, although the vaccine greatly reduces the disease burden. The question about smallpox is absurd: Most people are not vaccinated against that disease, which was eradicated more than 40 years ago. The reason people don’t get smallpox is that the virus is no longer circulating in the human population.

“… [R]esearchers at Johns Hopkins [University] admitting that lockdowns didn’t actually work. They did ruin people’s lives for no reason whatsoever.”

FACT: This “working paper,” written by economists—not epidemiologists—was heavily criticized. Many other studies have concluded that lockdowns did, in fact, slow down the spread of the virus, prevent severe disease and deaths, and help reduced the strain on hospital systems.

“In late 2020, a group of epidemiologists tried to warn the public about this because they saw it coming and they wrote something called, ‘The Great Barrington Declaration.’”

FACT: The Great Barrington Declaration similarly was widely assailed for making unscientific claims.

“… [P]eople like Tony Fauci, who apparently engineered the single most devastating event in modern American history and then lied about it, gets to retire as a hero.”

“Again, just like the bureaucrats at the Pentagon who engineered our humiliating credibility-destroying withdrawal from Afghanistan that got American lives killed, no punishment. Tony Fauci gets to collect his enormous government retirement and he’ll be lecturing you from the stage at CNN very, very soon. So, what exactly are Republicans going to do about this, when and if they take power in January? What else has Tony Fauci lied about?”

FACT: There’s no evidence that Fauci engineered the COVID-19 pandemic or lied about it.

Correction, 27 August, 5:30 a.m.: This story originally said Carlson had the facts “mostly correct” in his discussion of remdesivir, and that WHO had judged that drug to be “of no use.” But WHO updated its guidelines for remdesivir in April 2022 based on new trial data and now recommends remdesivir’s use in some patients. Carlson had, again, misstated the facts.

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