Sen. Rand Paul accused Fauci of 'theater' and wearing masks 'for show' after being vaccinated

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Dr. Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Thursday over the federal coronavirus response. AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool
  • Sen. Rand Paul accused Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday of "theater" and wearing masks "for show."

  • The two sparred over whether people who had been infected with COVID-19 needed to wear masks.

  • Fauci argued that those who had been infected were not fully immune against variants.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

During a tense exchange Thursday at a Senate hearing over the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of performing "theater" and wearing two masks "for show" after being vaccinated.

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Biden administration's chief medical advisor, testified before the Senate Help, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where he and Paul have traded barbs before.

Paul began his question by citing numerous studies that he argued showed that people who had previously been infected with the coronavirus had little to no chance of being reinfected.

Paul and a fellow GOP senator, Ron Johnson, have both argued, contrary to prevailing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that they don't need to wear masks or get a COVID-19 vaccine because they've already tested positive for the infection.

"You're telling everybody to wear a mask, whether they've had an infection or a vaccine. What I'm saying is that they have immunity, and everybody agrees they have immunity," Paul said. "What studies do you have that people that have had the vaccine or have had the infection or the vaccine are spreading the infection? If we're not spreading the infection, isn't that just theater? You've had the vaccine and you're wearing two masks, isn't that theater?"

"No, it's not - here we go again with the theater. Let's get down to the facts," Fauci responded, telling Paul that the studies he cited "look at in-vitro examination of memory immunity" and pointing out that the authors "specifically say, this does not necessarily pertain to the actual protection - it's in-vitro."

Fauci said he agreed with Paul that those who had already been infected most likely had six months of immunity against the strain of COVID-19 they were initially infected with - but said that may not be the case against emerging variants and mutations of concern, including the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants.

"The other thing is that when you talk about reinfection and you don't keep in the concept of variants, that's an entirely different ballgame," Fauci said. "That's a good reason for a mask."

Fauci cited Johnson & Johnson's study in South Africa, which found that when people who had been infected with the original "wild type" strain of the COVID-19 virus were exposed, this time to the country's predominant B.1.351 strain, "it was as if they had never been infected before, they had no protection."

But Paul continued to press Fauci on what studies showed "significant" reinfections or hospitalizations from reinfections.

"You're not hearing what I'm saying about variants - we're talking about wild-type versus variants," Fauci said, adding that the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, was "growing in prevalence" in the US.

Paul then accused Fauci of "making policy based on conjecture," adding, "You've been vaccinated and you parade around in two masks for show."

"Let me just state for the record that masks are not theater - they are protective," Fauci said before Paul cut him off again.

In response to a question from Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's chairwoman, Fauci said people who were vaccinated against the wild-type strain, for example, "get a certain level of antibody that's specific to a particular viral strain."

"If there's a circulating variant, you don't necessarily have it. You have some spillover immunity to be sure, but you diminish by anywhere from two- to eightfold the protection. So the point I'm saying is that there are variants that are now circulating," Fauci added, citing the B.1.1.7 variant and other concerning variants emerging out of New York and California.

Afterward, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy made a point of praising Fauci as "setting an example" that had "not been followed by other leaders in this country" by wearing a mask.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat, also responded to Paul's arguments.

"I have had COVID, and I've been vaccinated, and I wear a mask," he said. "I wear a mask to make other people feel safer, even if there weren't variants."

In a Friday appearance on "CBS This Morning," Fauci reiterated that Paul's position was "dead wrong" and "goes against just about everything we know about how to prevent spread of the virus" in claiming that those who have already had COVID-19 don't need to wear masks.

"He was quoting literature selectively and leaving out important studies which actually show that people actually can get reinfected," Fauci told CBS' Gayle King. "His point was if you're vaccinated, you shouldn't be wearing a mask," he continued, adding: "That's ridiculous."

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