CNN  — 

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, admitted earlier this month that he is no longer convinced that the Covid-19 pandemic originated naturally.

“I am not convinced about that, I think we should continue to investigate what went on in China until we continue to find out to the best of our ability what happened,” Fauci told PolitiFact’s managing editor Katie Sanders.

“Certainly, the people who investigated it say it likely was the emergence from an animal reservoir that then infected individuals, but it could have been something else, and we need to find that out. So, you know, that’s the reason why I said I’m perfectly in favor of any investigation that looks into the origin of the virus,” he continued.

Which is, quite clearly, a change from Fauci’s previous view that the disease very likely came about after animal to human transmission. Here’s Fauci in an interview with National Geographic last May:

“If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what’s out there now, [the scientific evidence] is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated … Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that [this virus] evolved in nature and then jumped species.”

Fauci’s dismissal of the idea that the virus originated in a lab in China’s Wuhan province followed vague assertions by then-President Donald Trump that he had a “high degree of confidence” that the virus had come from a lab. Pressed for details on that assertion, which ran counter to US intelligence on the virus’ origins, Trump offered only this: “I can’t tell you that. I’m not allowed to tell you that.”

Given that history, conservatives leaped on Fauci’s recent hedging as proof positive that Trump was, in fact, right all along. (Worth noting: Fauci made his comments at a fact-checking symposium on May 11, but they were largely ignored at the time. Conservative publications began writing about the remarks over the weekend.)

“Fauci must answer for his role in Wuhan’s COVID lab,” tweeted former New York Rep. Nan Hayworth (R).

Fauci has become a lightning rod for conservative criticism of how the scientific community has handled the ongoing pandemic. Trump sought to villainize Fauci for his allegedly too-cautious approach to a return to normal from the virus, and the likes of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have taken up the cause; last month she tweeted a video of herself working out that included this text: “This is my Covid protection #MakeAmericaHealthyAgain It’s time to #FireFauci”

So, how much “there” is actually there? Well, on Sunday, the Wall Street Journal wrote this:

“Three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, according to a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report that could add weight to growing calls for a fuller probe of whether the Covid-19 virus may have escaped from the laboratory…

“…The disclosure of the number of researchers, the timing of their illnesses and their hospital visits come on the eve of a meeting of the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, which is expected to discuss the next phase of an investigation into Covid-19’s origins.”

It’s worth noting here that, according to CNN reporting, US intelligence officials are not certain what the researchers were actually sick with. And Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress last month that “the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when, or how Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially.”

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, denied the WSJ report and said that the US is “hyping up the lab leak theory.”

What’s clear is that Fauci is significantly more open to the idea of the lab theory than he was a year ago. While he did leave himself some wiggle room in his statements about the origins last year (he said he was “very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated,”) there was no doubt about where Fauci stood on the question.

The issue, then, is not whether Fauci has moved his position on the possible origins of the virus but rather why he is doing so. Fauci defenders will insist that he is simply evolving his view based on information that has come out over the last year. Fauci opponents will insist he knew all along that the lab theory was a possibility and downplayed it solely to make Trump look bad.

In the midst of that debate, it’s important to remember that Trump never provided any evidence for his vague claims about the origins of the virus. “Something happened,” was as far as he would go.

It’s also critical to remember that there would be a major distinction – even within the lab theory – between the virus accidentally getting out and it being purposely released as a sort of weapon. Trump and his allies have long flicked at the latter explanation but without any further explanation or proof.

As CNN wrote on Monday:

“The current intelligence reinforces the belief that the virus most likely originated naturally, from animal-human contact, the sources said. But that does not preclude the possibility that the virus was the result of an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute, where coronavirus research was being conducted on bats.”

Here’s the point: The origins of the virus remain not fully known. Tracing that is, at root, a medical and public health question – not a political one.