Video misleads on Fauci emails
CLAIM: People should stop wearing masks because leaked emails show Dr. Anthony Fauci said masks aren’t effective against COVID-19. Emails also showed Fauci takes hydroxychloroquine and tells his family members to take it to prevent COVID-19 but did not want the general public to have a cure.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. A trove of emails from Fauci, longtime director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was released to media organizations, not leaked, and are now being misrepresented on social media. In February and March 2020, Fauci advised the public against wearing masks, but later updated his position, noting masks are essential to help curb the outbreak. Fauci did not state in an email that he takes hydroxychloroquine. In fact, he has repeatedly stated that the data does not support the malaria drug as an effective treatment against COVID-19.
THE FACTS: Last week, Fauci’s emails were released to The Washington Post and Buzzfeed News through Freedom of Information Act requests. Republicans and conservative media outlets have baselessly tried to paint Fauci as a liar who misled the American people on COVID-19 origins. Social media users have also misrepresented the emails, including a TikTok video that was also shared on Facebook this week.
“How you see Dr. Fauci’s leaked emails about how masks don’t work and still wear masks? Brainwashed,” states a man in the TikTok video. “The typical mask you buy in a drugstore is not really effective. Guys, that’s from Fauci, that’s not me. That’s from the man who got y’all wearing masks.”
The video is accompanied by a screenshot of an email that Fauci wrote on Feb. 5, 2020, before COVID-19 had become a pandemic, that was later published by Buzzfeed News: “Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection. The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material,” reads the email, which Fauci sent to Sylvia Burwell.
Burwell, who is president of American University and a former Secretary of Health and Human Services, had asked Fauci whether she should take a mask to the airport.
Weeks after Fauci sent his response to Burwell, at the end of February 2020, there were still fewer than 100 reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
There’s no revelation in the email since early in the pandemic, Fauci publicly downplayed mask wearing for the general public and stated in March 2020 masks should be spared for healthcare workers. “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” Fauci told 60 Minutes in a March 8, 2020 broadcast.
At that time, global public officials also said people who are not infected with COVID-19 do not have to wear a mask, amid a shortage of masks for health workers. As new information emerged on how the virus spreads, officials shifted their messaging, urging everyone to wear a mask, even if they weren’t sick with COVID-19.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on April 3, 2020, to recommend that people wear masks, Fauci also promoted that message. During a PBS Newshour interview on April 3, Fauci encouraged wearing masks, saying new information showed infected people without symptoms can still transmit the virus. In a CNN interview on May 21, 2020, Fauci stated: “Wear a mask.”
The TikTok video also makes the false claim that Fauci admitted hydroxychloroquine was effective against COVID-19 and took it himself, and that therefore those who had promoted the drug as a cure were correct. The malaria drug has not been approved to use as a treatment for COVID-19.
The video shows a photo of Dr. Stella Immanuel, a Houston physician, who said masks were not necessary and touted hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.
“They called her crazy. They pulled her off of every social media platform when she told us that was the cure. What are they trying to do to us? What is really their agenda?” the man says in the video. “When you see Fauci’s email, saying that he takes it and telling his other family members to take it, but then when it comes to the general public they tell us not to. We waking up yet?”
To back up the false claim about Fauci’s email, the video shows a screenshot of an email stating: “The other drug I have, and have told my family and some friends to get, is called hyroxychloriquine -- also seem to be effective and safe.”
But Fauci didn’t write that email, in which the drug was misspelled. He received the email from Erik A. Nilsen, CEO of Bio-Signal Technologies, a startup based in Texas, on March 18, 2020, according to the emails published by Buzzfeed News.
“Dr. Fauci has never taken hydroxychloroquine,” an NIAID spokesperson confirmed to The Associated Press in an email.
Other emails written by Fauci during that time period show that he was not willing to endorse hydroxychloroquine because data did not support its use.
On Feb. 24, 2020, Philip Gatti, a pharmacologist for the Food and Drug Administration, wrote to Fauci to ask whether there was any data to substantiate the claim “that chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine can decrease COVID-19 infections and lung disease?” Fauci responded by saying there wasn’t any evidence: “There are no data in this brief report and so I have no way of evaluating their claim. There are a lot of these types of claims going around. I would love to see their data.”
Fauci continues to state that science doesn’t back using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. After President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January, Fauci said at times he was at odds with the Trump administration and cited the former president’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as one example.
“It was very clear that there were things that were said, be it regarding things like hydroxychloroquine and other things, that really was uncomfortable because they were not based in scientific fact,” Fauci said during a White House briefing last January.
This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.
Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536