‘I took an oath to do no harm’: The two doctors wrestling over Fauci’s legacy

Brad Wenstrup was alarmed.

It was February 2020, weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered America’s businesses and schools. But the Ohio congressman, a former military combat surgeon, was reading email from a fellow doctor on how U.S. and Chinese researchers had been experimenting on viruses in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

“Look, I’m military, a military doc. … I started thinking about biological weapons,” Wenstrup recalled in a recent interview with The Washington Post.

Four years later, the Republican congressman is still thinking about China’s potential links to covid, as part of his work to shape America’s understanding of the pandemic. As chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic - the only panel in Congress solely devoted to probing a health crisis that left more than 1 million Americans dead - Wenstrup has led investigations into the origins of the virus as well as hearings on school shutdowns, vaccine mandates and possible side effects from coronavirus vaccines. He recruited another doctor - California congressman Raul Ruiz, an emergency medicine specialist - to serve as the panel’s top Democrat last year, promising they would be two physicians working together to get answers and accountability.

But 16 months into their investigations, Wenstrup and Ruiz have splintered on a core question: whether their work is helping prepare America for the next pandemic, or deepening divisions from the last one.

Wenstrup and his fellow Republicans have focused much of their effort on the possible lab origins of the coronavirus, suggesting federal officials worked to cover up U.S. ties to researchers in Wuhan. The issue is set to receive national attention Monday, when Anthony S. Fauci - to many Americans, the face of the nation’s coronavirus response - testifies in front of the panel. Republicans are poised to grill the former National Institutes of Health official on the agency’s funding of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that participated in risky virus research in China before the pandemic. Federal officials in May halted funding to the organization, citing irregularities uncovered by the coronavirus panel.

Ruiz and other Democrats concede there were episodes of pandemic-era wrongdoing, such as EcoHealth misleading the government on its potential work and a former Fauci adviser admitting he deliberately deleted emails. But they say the GOP-led investigations have amounted to a wild-goose chase, wasting taxpayer dollars and a crucial opportunity to prepare for the next health crisis.

“We have gone through a countless amount of pages, countless amount of interviews, countless amount of hours,” Ruiz said in a recent interview, stressing that no one has linked SARS-CoV-2, the virus that sparked the outbreak, to any lab. Many scientists say it’s more likely the crisis began just like other outbreaks: the virus made the leap from an animal to a human.

Despite repeated calls from politicians and editorial pages, there are no plans to establish a Sept. 11-style commission on the pandemic, with Trump and Biden officials worried about revisiting unpopular decisions or spotlighting mistakes. Congress is unlikely to continue the covid panel past this year, making Wenstrup and Ruiz’s fragile partnership perhaps the last, best hope to get bipartisan answers about a still-mysterious outbreak and the government’s response.

In interviews during the past year, Wenstrup and Ruiz acknowledged fractures in their relationship, as they wrestled over how to use the powers of Congress. Ruiz said he has thought about the Hippocratic oath that physicians must take, pledging to do no harm.

Is the covid committee playing with fire, by elevating the lab-leak theory, raising questions about vaccines and spotlighting accusations against public health experts like Fauci? Or is the panel - finally - giving voice to points of view suppressed during the pandemic?

“Look, I’m a doctor, and I took an oath to do no harm,” Ruiz said as he helped kick off a May 2023 hearing on coronavirus vaccine mandates, warning about “the disinformation and the misinformation” that he said had damaged confidence in public health. “We cannot get to a place where we are explicitly or implicitly sowing distrust in covid vaccines,” Ruiz said later.

“An opinion is far different from misinformation,” Wenstrup quickly countered. “And if we’re not allowed to have opinions in the medical community, we are doomed. We are absolutely doomed.”

- - -

A covid panel is born

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, lawmakers and public health officials have said that “do no harm” was never really an option. “Do less harm,” perhaps.

Fauci and other leaders have conceded that telling Americans to keep apart from family, or encouraging them to attend school remotely, caused harm - even as they continue to believe it was less harmful than contracting a novel virus that had no existing treatments and ended up as the nation’s third-leading cause of death in 2020.

House Democrats feared some of the harm was coming from President Donald Trump touting unproven treatments, and in April 2020 they created a panel to oversee trillions of dollars in coronavirus spending and to serve as a check on the White House.

Leading up to the election, the committee delivered high-profile reports about Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic response - over GOP accusations that the Democrat-led panel was playing politics.

Then came a new year and a new administration. And with President Biden in office, the committee steered away from criticizing the White House. There were no hearings about vaccine mandates. No threats of subpoenas to Biden officials.

No talk - at least from the Democrats - about the possibility that the virus began in a laboratory.

Then Republicans won back the House.

- - -

A shift in focus

It was January 2023, Kevin McCarthy was on the phone, and Wenstrup weighed the new House speaker’s offer: become the next leader of the covid committee.

Finally, Republicans would hold the gavel. They could ask about school shutdowns, and whether teachers’ unions had too much sway in shaping social-distancing policies. They could review the safety and necessity of vaccines. They could train their lens on whether scientists tried to hide a lab leak.

The panel could do a true after-action review, just like in the Army, Wenstrup thought.

Growing up in Cincinnati, Wenstrup dreamed of being a doctor - inspired by a 1970s TV show, “Medical Center,” and its fictional hero, Dr. Joe Gannon - and he’d wanted to serve in the military, too.

He got the chance to do both in Iraq, as a major in the Army Reserve and chief of surgery at Abu Ghraib prison hospital in 2005 and 2006. Wenstrup ended up operating on Ali Hassan al-Majid - the infamous cousin of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein who was nicknamed “Chemical Ali” after ordering poison gas attacks.

Six years later and back in Ohio, Wenstrup began a long-shot campaign for Congress, winning support from the tea party movement for his conservative politics and getting favorable coverage from local media; one reporter compared the podiatric surgeon to Cincinnati-area native George Clooney. After unseating the incumbent Republican, Wenstrup joined dozens of new lawmakers in January 2013, a freshman class that included Ruiz. The two doctors found common ground, partnering on health bills, but their tendency toward bipartisan deals didn’t help either stand out in a Congress that rewards firebrands.

Then came the 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice, where Republicans were attacked by a gunman. It was like being back in Iraq, Wenstrup thought. His military training took over as he rushed to save Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) from bleeding to death near the outfield grass.

Other brushes with the spotlight would come, as the pandemic hit and the GOP doctor emerged as one of his party’s go-to voices. Wenstrup cut a pro-vaccine ad with other Republican doctors. He administered hundreds of shots around Ohio. He even met with skeptical GOP voters over Zoom, suggesting the new vaccine could spare them longer-term problems.

The pitch fell flat. “I’ve had covid,” said one skeptic who gave his name as Patrick. “I had a cold for three days, and I was fine after that … the vaccine, I just don’t see any rush to do it.”

To Wenstrup, it was a vivid illustration: Americans didn’t want to be told what to do on public health, especially by bureaucrats. They needed to be educated, not indoctrinated.

What better way to inform than by leading the covid committee? Yes, Wenstrup said in January 2023, I’ll do it.

With Wenstrup’s encouragement, the panel ended up packed with GOP physicians: Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, who had been Trump’s White House doctor; Iowa Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who had led that state’s public health department; Rep. Richard McCormick, a newly elected Georgia emergency-medicine doctor who had treated covid patients; and Rep. John Joyce, a Pennsylvania physician with experience in intensive care.

McCarthy also picked Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had been banned from Twitter for amplifying questions about the covid vaccine.

There was one other doctor Wenstrup wanted on the panel. He called Ruiz right away.

“I said, try to get on this subcommittee,” Wenstrup recalled, following up with a quick text message. “Try to be ranking member.”

- - -

‘We’ve even seen flat-out lying’

Raul Ruiz felt caught in quicksand again.

He’d taken Wenstrup’s encouragement and won a spot as the covid panel’s top Democrat. He’d come prepared to focus on improving public health; one pet project involved equipment and ventilation that could keep schools open in the next pandemic. He’d been excited to work with Wenstrup, a friend and occasional dinner companion.

Now it was July 2023, and Ruiz told his staff he was stuck, unable to move forward on pandemic preparations because he was busy defending science.

And on this day, sitting in one of Congress’s most famed oversight rooms, Ruiz was again listening to Republicans accuse scientists of a coverup, suggesting that Fauci and longtime NIH Director Francis S. Collins had conspired with prominent virologists to write a paper dismissing the possibility of a lab leak. (The scientists repeatedly denied the accusation.) He heard Greene wrongly claim that “most of the intelligence community” had concluded that the coronavirus came from a lab.

It was a parade of dishonesty, Ruiz thought - “baseless allegation after baseless allegation and unsubstantiated claim after unsubstantiated claim,” he spat out, nearly three hours into the hearing.

“We’ve even seen flat-out lying today - lying,” Ruiz added, walking through examples he said were dishonest and gesturing in Wenstrup’s direction. For instance, just two agencies favor the lab-leak theory, compared with the four agencies and the National Intelligence Council that think the virus emerged naturally.

“Four is more than two. Four is more than two,” Ruiz repeated, holding up four fingers on his right hand and two on his left for emphasis, mocking the GOP’s math.

It was a characteristically passionate appeal from the energetic, cerebral Ruiz. It bombed with Wenstrup, sitting a few feet to Ruiz’s left.

“We’re working on behalf of the lives lost or severely damaged,” the committee chairman snapped back, his normally flat tone a little ruffled, as he rebutted his counterpart in what became a 17-minute riff. (He would also argue with Ruiz behind closed doors later, angry to be labeled a liar, a dispute that briefly strained their friendship.)

“You may call it going down a rabbit hole and trying to find vendettas - or somebody here might - but I do have a vendetta against dishonesty, and as a doctor I’m against politically motivated science,” Wenstrup added.

Ruiz’s worries had been building for months.

He was worried by news releases that accused scientists of wrongdoing. He was alarmed by behavior from his GOP counterparts that seemed cruel and designed to provoke, such as Greene’s personal battles with witnesses.

And he knew that, as the top Democrat on a GOP-led committee, there was only so much he could do to shape the panel’s work.

Ruiz understood life as an underdog.

He grew up in Coachella, Calif. - an area made famous by its annual music festival, but one marked by widespread poverty, which he experienced as the son of farmworkers.

By age 4, Ruiz decided to be a doctor; at 18, he raised tuition money by pledging to businesses that he would return home to care for the community. He earned his medical degree at Harvard - one of three graduate degrees he earned from the school, where he became a protégé of legendary public health physician Paul Farmer.

Now in Congress, Ruiz approached new challenges with the framework he had learned in medical school: Find the root causes of a problem, diagnose what wasn’t working, prescribe a solution. But he wasn’t sure how to solve the problems he saw with the covid committee.

Take vaccine safety. Democrats knew rare side effects could happen - Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, one of the panel’s members, once suffered a serious side effect from a flu shot. But Ruiz didn’t understand why some Republicans were raising debunked theories, such as the connection between autism and vaccines.

His most persistent frustration: how Republicans and their handpicked witnesses kept talking about the virus’s origin.

“It’s a no-brainer it came from the lab,” Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins University transplant surgeon and Fox News analyst, said at the panel’s first roundtable in February 2023. The public has tended to agree; polls show that about two-thirds of Americans, including about half of Democrats, believe the virus originated in a laboratory.

Ruiz said he’s more open to the lab-leak theory than when he joined the panel. But the congressman said he’s surprised by how little he has learned from the GOP’s relentless investigations.

“What I can tell you so far, of the data and the investigations and countless hours of research, there is no evidence to show that Dr. Fauci and EcoHealth have created this virus,” Ruiz said.

- - -

The return of Fauci

Rain pelted the Capitol on Jan. 9 as Tony Fauci strode through its depths, escorted by Capitol police, his own security detail, a pair of government lawyers, two personal lawyers, even a couple of junior legal aides, navigating underground corridors hidden from visitors.

It was a walk Fauci and his entourage had already made a dozen times by that evening, shuttling between a room of congressional investigators and his holding room every hour.

The 83-year-old doctor had been summoned to the nearly empty Capitol to privately testify about the pandemic for 14 hours across two days. On Monday, he will face lawmakers’ questions in public for the first time since leaving government in 2022.

Fauci has repeatedly denied accusations of a coverup into the virus’s origins, telling friends he feels caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare where personal emails and comments have been distorted by conservatives in Congress and on television. In his private testimony, he spoke of the “constant threats” he and his family have received, particularly when lawmakers allege he played a role in creating the virus. Fauci declined to comment for this article.

For months, Democrats have protested Republicans’ focus on Fauci, Collins and other public health officials, worried about undermining Americans’ already-declining confidence in public health agencies and their leaders.

But Democrats have begun to agree with Republicans about evidence of some wrongdoing. First came a May 1 hearing with Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth, during which Wenstrup and Ruiz said the federal government should consider blocking the nonprofit’s funding for failing to monitor and report on its risky virus research in China. EcoHealth has protested the resulting funding crackdown, and Daszak maintains the organization is being scapegoated.

Then, the panel battered David Morens, a former Fauci deputy and close friend of Daszak, over his attempts to evade federal records requirements when corresponding with Daszak and others about sensitive coronavirus topics. Democrats joined that effort but took pains to distinguish between their anger at Morens for deleting emails vs. the lack of evidence for a broader conspiracy to hide the origins of the virus.

“It is not anti-science to hold you accountable for defying the public’s trust and misusing official resources,” Ruiz said. Morens told Congress he had made mistakes, but said there was no coverup of secret virus experiments.

Later this year, the panel will need to write a final report, summarizing its investigations and offering recommendations. It will probably be one of Wenstrup’s final acts in Congress; the 65-year-old is retiring.

The Republican chairman said he views the panel as helping correct the record for history, and that fully exploring controversial topics will safeguard the world against another crisis.

“Science involves looking at everything,” Wenstrup said in a May interview, adding that people who raised questions about the virus possibly originating in a lab and other issues were written off as conspiracy theorists. “Serious harm was done to science [by] canceling people who had different opinions.”

Ruiz, sitting in his office later that day, countered that Republicans have harmed the public by focusing too much on trying to validate the lab-leak theory. Even the panel’s success stories, like catching Morens deleting emails, are small victories, he added.

“When we have the next emerging virus that’s a pandemic and is killing thousands of people daily, do you think that they’re going to look back and say, ‘Oh, thank goodness, we caught that misconduct,’” Ruiz said. “Do you think identifying this misbehavior is somehow going to lead to better protective equipment, better protective protocols so that we can respond to the [next] pandemic and save lives? … I personally don’t think so.”

Related Content

One graduate’s quiet protest: Bringing a banned book to commencement

The real dolphin tale: They’re smart, sometimes vicious and highly sexed

Trump makes sweeping promises to donors on audacious fundraising tour