On Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul continued what’s become his standard method of interrogation when he has the opportunity to question Dr. Anthony Fauci: Talk loudly, listen less and proclaim unfounded theories as fact while offering zero substantiating evidence.
The Kentucky Republican sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which heard testimony Tuesday from a handful of federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19. As the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci was among them.
Until Paul took the floor, members of the bipartisan panel focused on matters like vaccine efficacy and distribution, how to reach and reassure vaccine-hesitant Americans, and how best to vaccinate populations outside the U.S.
This go-around, Paul repeatedly tried to ensnare Fauci in the theory that COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, where he asserted that virologists deliberately created a more infectious virus through “gain of function” research.
The senator then baselessly accused Fauci of supporting the use of National Institutes of Health funds to support the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a charge Fauci immediately dismissed in no uncertain terms.
“Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect,” he said. “The NIH has not ever, and does not now, fund gain of function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
Paul ignored the statement and charged ahead. “Government scientists like yourself who favor gain of function research ― ”
“I don’t favor gain of function research in China,” Fauci interjected. “You are saying things that are not correct.”
Paul then pursued confrontation elsewhere, challenging Fauci to “categorically say” that COVID-19 could not have escaped a lab.
Fauci didn’t take the bait and again pushed back on Paul’s narrative.
“I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I’m fully in favor of any further investigation of what went on in China,” he replied. “However, I will repeat again: The NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain of function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
After Paul’s time expired, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) asked a pointed follow-up:
“Dr. Fauci, what is the impact of conspiracy theories peddled by Sen. Rand Paul and others on Americans’ willingness to take this vaccine?”
“Conspiracy theories certainly are not helpful in what we’re trying to do,” Fauci replied. “I guess I can say that with some degree of confidence.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.