WASHINGTON: Top American scientist Anthony Fauci slammed a vaccine skeptic Republican senator for unleashing "crazies" who were threatening his life and harassing his family, in unusually emotional congressional testimony on Tuesday.
The latest bitter exchange between Fauci and Senator Rand Paul came as Covid-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant soared, sending hospitalizations to an all-time high of 145,982, beating out a previous record of around 142,000 in January 2021.
The United States is the world's hardest-hit country, with more than 840,000 deaths, and is reeling from its fifth wave.
President Joe Biden's top officials, including his chief medical advisor Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walenksy, and acting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) head Janet Woodcock were summoned to testify before the Senate about the pandemic.
While many fellow lawmakers focused their questions on the lack of adequate testing and confusing new guidelines on how infected people should end their isolation, Paul, who has railed against vaccine mandates and refused to get vaccinated, said Fauci was personally to blame for people's deaths.
Paul said Fauci was the "lead architect" of America's Covid response, blaming him for the around 450,000 deaths that occurred since Biden took office -- although the vast majority were unvaccinated, and health officials including Fauci have consistently advocated for vaccines.
"You personally attack me and with absolutely not a shred of evidence of anything you say," Fauci responded.
The 81-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases added the attacks distracted from the important work of tackling the pandemic, and made him a personal target for violence.
"All of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there, and I have life threats upon my life, harassment of my family, and my children with obscene phone calls."
Fauci recalled that in late December, a man was arrested on his way from California to the capital Washington armed with an AR-15 assault weapon and multiple rounds of ammunition.
The man said he wanted to kill Fauci, because of what he said was blood on the scientists' hands.
Fauci then brandished a printout from Paul's website that showed the banner "Fire Dr Fauci" next to an invitation to donate to the Republican's campaign.
"You are making a catastrophic epidemic for your political gain," he added.
The clash came as Covid overwhelms America's health care system, already stretched by the Delta variant and by mass staff resignations.
Though Omicron causes severe cases at a lower rate than Delta, it is reaching more people because of its extreme infectiousness.
The latest data from New York state shows that Covid vaccines continue to stand up well against severe outcomes.
By December 27, 4.6 vaccinated people per 100,000 were hospitalized per week compared to 58.3 per 100,000 among unvaccinated people, for an age-adjusted vaccine efficacy against hospitalization of 92 percent.
There has been a decoupling between the rate of cases and hospitalizations during the Omicron wave compared to prior waves, but the effect has not been as strong as that seen in Britain, which was hit by Omicron first but has a higher vaccination and boosted rate.
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