This story was updated on Thursday, May 10, 2021, at 6:47 p.m. with additional information.
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, on Thursday led the call for Dr. Anthony Fauci to step aside from his role as the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Blackburn and other Republicans say Fauci has worked with "Big Tech" and "Big Media" to downplay the possibility the coronavirus pandemic began with a lab leak in Wuhan, China, among other issues.
At a Capitol Hill news conference on Thursday, Blackburn said, "I think it is appropriate that Dr. Fauci step aside from his responsibility at the NIAID and that he make himself available to Congress to find out exactly how he was in cahoots with [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg and 'Big Tech.'"
Joined by Republican U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Braun of Indiana and Roger Marshall of Kansas, Blackburn reiterated that Congress should investigate.
"I think the standing committees of the U.S. Senate should take the lead," she said. "We are pleased with our allies who are also joining us and saying this needs to be investigated. It is obvious that something was not right."
Her initiative came a day after Fauci responded to Blackburn and his other GOP critics in an appearance on MSNBC.
"It's very dangerous because a lot of what you're seeing as attacks on me quite frankly are attacks upon science," Fauci, a top medical adviser to President Joe Biden as well as the head of NIAID, told MSNBC host Chuck Todd.
Fauci, 80, defended his actions and commitment to science, saying "people want to fire me or put me in jail for what I've done — namely, follow the science."
Blackburn and fellow Republicans began stepping up criticism after the recent release of thousands of Fauci's emails by The Washington Post and Buzzfeed News. The news outlets obtained the emails through federal Freedom of Information Act requests.
Several Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, have called for Fauci to be fired.
Fauci sought to rebut Blackburn and others who have assailed him over his past statements in areas ranging from the origins of the deadly virus to Fauci's initial doubts about the use of masks. Blackburn in a video this week highlighted Fauci's contacts with Zuckerberg, who Republicans charge has refused to permit the free flow of information about the coronavirus on his social network.
In a 50-second video on Twitter, Blackburn said there is "a lot of information going on, stirring around the Wuhan Lab and COVID-19. Here are some facts that I want you to know.
"First of all, yes, Dr. Fauci was emailing with Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, trying to create that narrative, cherry-picking information so that you would only know what they wanted you to know. And there would be a narrative that would fit with this cherry-picked information.
"The second thing we are aware of, it was Dr. Fauci and his agency that wrote that check, sent that money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to do this coronavirus research," she said in the video, captioned with "the facts on Fauci that big tech doesn't want you to know."
After the MSNBC host showed Fauci the video including the accusation regarding Zuckerberg, the scientist said, "I don't have a clue what she just said. I have no idea what she's talking about. I'm sorry, I don't want to be pejorative against a United States senator, but I have no idea what she's talking about.
"And you know, Chuck, if you go through each and every one of the points which are so ridiculous as, you know, it's painfully ridiculous."
Fauci said, "If you go through each and every one of them, you can explain and debunk immediately, I mean, every single one. 'He should be fired because he in the beginning changed his mind about masks.'"
Fauci explained that at the time there was "thought to be a shortage" of N-95 masks. Also early on, he said, there was "no evidence that masks worked outside of the context of a hospital."
The third issue was, "We were not aware of the extent of asymptomatic spread. So we said, you don't really need to wear a mask. It wasn't only me," Fauci said, noting "the surgeon general of the United States and the entire CDC [the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] was saying the same thing."
But, Fauci said, in March and April of 2020 "it became clear" that there was no mask shortage and that cloth masks were effective outside hospital settings in preventing the virus' spread.
"And third, to our painful awareness, it became clear that 50% or more of the transmissions were with people who had no symptoms. So that's when we said we've got to get people to wear masks.
"That's what's called, Chuck, the scientific process. You make a recommendation a guideline based on what you know at a given time," Fauci said. "As a scientist, as a health official, when those data change, when you get more information, it's essential that you change your position because you've got to be guided by the science and the current data."
Blackburn responded with an email in which she stated "Dr. Fauci should have learned in science class that you need evidence to support a claim" and went on to criticize news organizations before accusing Fauci of being "evasive and dishonest" during his MSNBC appearance.
Later Wednesday night, Blackburn charged in a tweet that "Big tech suppressed information on the origins of COVID-19 for months. We need answers now."
Regarding Blackburn's assertion that it "was Dr. Fauci and his agency that wrote that check" to the Wuhan Institute, The Hill reported the senator may have been citing a grant that went to Wuhan Institute, considered a premier lab for studying coronaviruses, with the possibility that scientists were conducting "gain of function" research.
That research seeks to understand the way in which a pathogen adapts to environmental pressures, allowing disease control measures to be better planned and potential vaccines and therapies to be explored.
A $3.4 million grant was awarded by the National Institutes of Health to the non-governmental, New York-based EcoHealth Alliance from 2014 to 2019, according to The Hill. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was awarded a $600,000 subcontract to research bat coronaviruses over five years, the newspaper reported.
Blackburn's email states that under the directive of Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases "sent almost $1 million to the Wuhan Institute of Virology." The institute is one of 27 institutes and centers comprising the National Institutes of Health.
Fox News has reported that the Wuhan lab actually wound up getting more than $800,000.
Blackburn's email also provided a link to The Federalist, a conservative website. It charged in a headline on a story that "Fauci Colluded With Mark Zuckerberg On Facebook COVID-19 'Information Hub,' Emails Show."
Citing from what it said were emails from Buzzfeed's trove of documents, The Federalist reported Zuckerberg suggested interviewing Fauci on one of his Facebook Q&A livestreams.
The Federalist cited another email it stated came from Fauci in which the website said Fauci "praised Zuckerberg's planned COVID-19 information hub, while also expressing his willingness to cooperate with the tech giant."
It quoted Fauci writing, "Your idea and proposal sound terrific. I would be happy to do a video for your hub. We need to reach as many people as possible and convince them to take mitigation strategies seriously or things will get much, much worse. Also, your idea about [REDACTED] is very exciting."
Later Thursday afternoon, Blackburn announced she has reintroduced her Stop China-Originated Viral Infectious Diseases (Stop COVID) Act, which she said would ensure Beijing "faces consequences for its role in spreading the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan." She said the virus has caused not only deaths but the loss of trillions of dollars.
It would enable Americans to sue China in U.S. courts to seek compensation.
"The Chinese Communist Party must face the consequences for unleashing the virus upon the world over a year ago," Blackburn said.
Fauci said in late May he is no longer convinced the Covid-19 pandemic originated naturally.
"I am not convinced about that, I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened," Fauci recently told PolitiFact's managing editor Katie Sanders.
"Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that's the reason why I said I'm perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus," Fauci added.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter at AndySher1.