MISSING CONTEXT: Fauci says in a leaked email that masks don’t work

At a glance:
  • Claim: Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a leaked email that masks don't work.
  • The facts: The email often cited to show that Fauci said that masks don’t work was sent on February 5, 2020, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Later on, Fauci would consistently support the wearing of masks.
  • Why we fact-checked this: The claim was found in a video from a post by Facebook user Lynn Agno. As of writing, the post has about 896 reactions, 1,100 comments, and 1,300 shares, while the video has about 3,100 views.
Complete details:

On June 9, 2021, Facebook user Lynn Agno posted a video in which she said the following about Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States: “Sinabi ni Fau-Fau (Fauci) na it cannot protect [from] any infection, iyong mask don’t work.” 

(Fau-Fau [Fauci] said that it cannot protect [from] any infection, that masks don’t work.)

Fauci is widely recognized as the leading expert in infectious diseases in the United States and is also the chief medical adviser to US President Joe Biden.

Lynn Agno elaborated her point in statements in the video starting at 12:33, where she referred to Fauci’s emails in 2020 that were released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by BuzzFeed News, The Washington Post, and CNN.

Itong leaked emails na mismo ang nagdidikta na sa buong mundo ng pandemic, na nagsasabi na iyong masks don’t work, na the only thing that it can do, ini-specify pa po niya talaga na iyong binibili 'nyo sa drugstore, walang gamit iyon dahil ang virus is too small that it can only go in and out of the mask. And iyon ang pagkaka-specify niya, at ang magagawa lang daw niya is ma-prevent nga iyong talsik ng laway,” she said.

(These leaked emails dictate that, in this worldwide pandemic, masks don’t work, that the only thing it can do – he specified that the ones you buy from drugstores, they have no use because the virus is too small that it can just pass through the mask. And that is how he specified it, that the only thing masks can do is to prevent spit.)

As of writing, the post has about 896 reactions, 1,100 comments, and 1,300 shares, while the video has about 3,100 views.

One of Fauci’s emails that matches the description Lynn Agno said in her video is an email sent on February 5, 2020, to Sylvia Burwell, former secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. 

At the time, COVID-19 was not yet considered a pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it as such on March 11, 2020. 

Fauci’s email to Burwell can be seen by going to page 3027 of 3234 after clicking on the link to Fauci’s emails in 2020, which can also be found in BuzzFeed News’s June 1, 2021, article “Anthony Fauci’s Emails Reveal The Pressure That Fell On One Man.”

“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. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keeping out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a vey (sic) low risk location. Your instincts are correct, money is best spent on medical countermeasures such as diagnostics and vaccines,” it said.

The claim by Lynn Agno is missing context.

CNN’s John Berman, in an interview aired on June 3, 2021 (see interview transcript here), asked Fauci about the controversial email to Sylvia Burwell: “If you had to go back and do it all over again, would you tell her something different? Do you regret that?” 

Fauci answered that he based his comment on data available at the time, and as the data and science changed, his opinions and recommendations changed as well. He said if he knew back then that transmission between asymptomatic cases was substantial and that masks indeed worked outside of a hospital setting, he would have done differently.

Changes in COVID-19 guidelines in the US on wearing face masks can be seen by comparing web pages on the section on protecting oneself and others given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over time.

Some early CDC guidelines regarding protecting oneself and others from COVID-19, such as these found in a web page captured by the Internet Archive on March 28, 2020, stated that wearing face masks were not needed unless one was sick or caring for someone sick who couldn't wear a face mask, and that the limited supply of face masks were better left with caregivers.

However, these guidelines would change over time, as can be viewed through Internet Archive’s collection of links. The CDC started to recommend wearing masks for everyone in public on April 3, 2020. It was reflected in the difference between the April 2, 2020, version and the April 3, 2020 version of the web page.

In an interview with Judy Woodruff in PBS NewsHour on April 3, 2020 (full transcript here), before the announcement of the CDC recommendation on the same day, Fauci favored the wearing of masks, explaining that there were supporting studies. He stressed that by wearing masks “we’re protecting each other.”

Claims about Fauci’s position on wearing masks in his February 5, 2020, email have been fact-checked by several organizations already, such as USA Today, FactCheck.org, CNN, AFP Fact Check, and Politifact.

Moreover, the claim that Fauci’s emails were “leaked” is misleading. They were obtained through FOIA requests. This claim was also fact-checked by organizations like Politifact, Reuters, and USA Today.

Rappler has fact-checked two Facebook pages by Lynn Agno – “Lynn Channel” and “Lynn Channel Warriors of Truth” – many times before. – Percival Bueser/Rappler.com

Percival Bueser is a graduate of Rappler's fact-checking mentorship program. This fact check was reviewed by a member of Rappler's research team and a senior editor. Learn more about Rappler's fact-checking mentorship program here.

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