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Congress blew its chance for COVID closure

Congress blew its chance June 3 to give Americans some insight into the COVID pandemic that dominated our lives for years. Following a 15-month inquiry, Republicans on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic called Anthony Fauci to testify in public at a special hearing, but committee members spent most of the time posturing rather than probing the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Many of us still want to know why the U.S. had more burdensome restrictions yet still lost more people, per capita, than other countries. We still want a coherent, honest explanation for how the pandemic started. Some thoughtful scientists have suggested a bipartisan investigation similar to the 9/11 Commission to give Americans the answers we deserve. Yet June 3, representatives from both parties showed no curiosity, either for themselves or for the American people.

Polarization has dumbed our politicians down. Ranking Democrat Raul Ruiz of California spent most of his time flattering Fauci and apologizing to him for the Republicans’ questions. He repeated that the U.S. lost a million people to COVID, as if this justified not asking questions when that number instead cries out for an explanation from our public health leaders.

Americans deserve to know why Fauci and other public health figures issued reassurance rather than warnings back in February and early March of 2020, when there was evidence the virus was spreading beyond Wuhan and could be deadly to some, especially the elderly.

Republicans, for their part, harped on Fauci’s earlier statements that the six-foot rule for physical distancing “just sort of appeared.” They twisted this to imply that Fauci invented it out of the blue and that it alone was the basis of all the business and school closures.

The real problem with the six-foot rule was that it discounted the possibility that the virus traveled through the air on smaller particles that could infect people even further away. Eventually, scientists gathered good data that showed time mattered more than distance — that being in the same room with an infected person more than 30 minutes put you at risk of infection, not being within six feet for a few seconds.

Had the public health establishment reacted more quickly to this change in scientific understanding, it would have been even harder to justify reopening indoor dining and bars. Is that really the point Republicans wanted to make?

Other countries justified keeping schools open not by discounting the six-foot (or two-meter) notion, but with data showing that kids were at much lower risk of serious illness than older adults. They also emphasized that school was valuable — more valuable than bars and restaurants — and that a zero-risk situation was impossible. Americans’ political polarization impaired our leaders’ ability to weigh such risks and benefits.

Illustrating the depths to which our political leaders have sunk, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene called to put Fauci in prison. Such rhetoric might be fueling death threats that Fauci, 83, says he still faces.

But Greene wasn’t interrupting anything very enlightening, and in a less outrageous way, her colleagues, too, were posing non-questions and pontificating for the purpose of display.

Fauci started to explain that the six-foot rule came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had to recommend protective measures before scientists fully understood how the new disease spread and which precautions would work best. But our representatives failed to follow up on why the public wasn’t better informed of these precautions’ inherent uncertainty, or why the public health community was so slow to respond to evidence of longer-distance airborne spread.

Fauci was also evasive on questions about vaccine mandates when he repeated that “vaccines save lives” — a statement that’s true but irrelevant. Some cancer screenings and drugs “save lives” but we don’t force people to get them. He did admit that it at first, the vaccines seemed to prevent transmission but that scientists’ understanding changed as the virus evolved and as vaccines’ protection waned.

Republicans could have questioned whether vaccine and booster mandates should have been lifted once it was clear the shots prevented serious illness only, and had little ability to protect others against infection. But those questions didn’t fit either political party’s preferred narrative — that all vaccine and booster mandates were terrible or that all were essential.

Much of the discussion centered on a series of emails from one of Fauci’s top advisers, David Morens, suggesting they keep their communications about the origin of the virus hidden from the public. Americans deserve better than this evasive behavior. Indeed, the investigation into COVID’s origins has left an information gap. This hearing was a chance to fill that gap, but our politicians were too busy talking to help us learn anything new.

House Democrats wanted to push the idea that the virus came from nature. That’s kind of a non-answer. Virologists have effectively refuted claims that the virus could only have come about through genetic manipulation. It might have evolved naturally in bats, but how did it get from bats to people? Either through illegal wildlife markets or scientists working with bat viruses. Neither explanation is innocent or purely “natural.”

The hearing started on a hopeful note when the chairman, Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican, said that “ … we should have been honest — especially about what we didn’t know.” That sort of humility is the only way to learn anything, but it keeps getting lost when we choose political leaders who think they already know everything.

F.D. Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She is host of the “Follow the Science” podcast.

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