Republican Senator Rand Paul and senior US government scientist Anthony Fauci angrily assailed each other Tuesday in a heated exchange on Capitol Hill, as President Joe Biden's political opponents continue to challenge the administration over the origins of Covid-19.
In a fiery confrontation rarely seen in the normally sober hearing rooms of Congress, Paul accused Fauci of "obfuscating the truth" about a government agency funding controversial research at China's specialized laboratory at the center of theories about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
That research is known as gain-of-function, in which scientists work to increase the transmissibility and virulence of microorganisms in order to better predict emerging infectious diseases.
"Senator Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly -- and I want to say that officially," Fauci said in his fiercest outburst on Capitol Hill in scores of hearings attended since the start of the crisis more than 18 months ago.
"If anybody is lying here, Senator, it is you," Fauci steamed, pointing a forefinger at the lawmaker from Kentucky.
Paul had warned Fauci of the criminal penalties for lying to Congress, reminding the top Biden aide that he had previously told lawmakers the National Institutes of Health had not funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab.
The senator read aloud from a doctor's assessment that he said confirms that such research indeed took place in the secretive Chinese lab -- and that the NIH funded it.
"They took animal viruses that only occur in animals, and they increased their transmissibility to humans," Paul said.
When Fauci said several virologists judged the research to not be gain-of-function work, Paul launched a blistering accusation.
"You're dancing around this because you're trying to obscure responsibility for four million people dying around the world from a pandemic," Paul said.
"There will be a responsibility for those who funded the lab, including yourself."
Fauci, who worked in president Donald Trump's administration but has since become the face of Biden's fight against the pandemic, bristled.
"You are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals. I totally resent that," Fauci said.
Fauci later said the senator has engaged in a "pattern" at multiple hearings, "based on no reality."
Paul has clashed multiple times with Fauci as the senator has seized on a recurring theme: that Washington has helped fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan lab at the heart of a theory, championed by Trump, that the virus leaked from the facility.
That hypothesis was initially widely dismissed as a conspiracy, but Biden in May ordered intelligence agencies to investigate the origin of the pandemic, including the lab-leak theory.