Lawmakers hear theories on COVID-19 origins in U.S. House hearing

By: - March 8, 2023 3:45 pm

Coronavirus COVID-19 computer generated image. Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans mostly agreed Wednesday that scientists and the intelligence community should fully investigate the origins of COVID-19 without political interference over whether the virus emerged from nature or through a lab leak.

Members from both political parties said throughout the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing that determining the origins could help prepare the United States and other countries to fare better during the next pandemic, or even prevent it.

The experts who testified before the panel, however, noted that there may never be enough evidence for the scientific community to coalesce around an origin.

“There’s no consensus yet about the virus’s origins,” said Paul Auwaerter, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He is also a former president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America

“The Department of Energy with low confidence determined the virus escaped from a laboratory in China based on classified information unavailable to the public. The FBI reached its conclusion with moderate confidence,” Auwaerter said. “On the other hand, many virologists believe compelling evidence points to an animal origin. They conclude that coronavirus most likely jumped from a caged, wild animal into people at a seafood market.”

“We may never know the origin conclusively — making claims that cannot be supported sufficiently by available data only fuels confusion and mistrust,” Auwaerter added.

Competing views

Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Trump administration, testified that there are two competing views within the scientific community about the origins of COVID-19.

The first is that the virus moved from an animal population to humans, sometimes referred to as a spillover event from nature, and then began to spread from there.

“This is a situation in which the virus naturally mutates and becomes more transmissible from one species to another,” Redfield said. “In this case, from bats to humans via an intermediate species. This is what happened in previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS and earlier coronavirus that emerged from bats and spread through an intermediate animal.”

The second hypothesis about the origins of the virus, he said, is that it evolved in a research laboratory involved in gain-of-function research.

“This is a type of research in which scientists seek to increase the transmissibility or pathogenicity of an organism in order to better understand that organism and inform preparedness efforts and the development of countermeasures such as therapeutics and vaccines,” Redfield said. “Under this theory, COVID infected the general population after it was accidentally leaked from a lab in China.”

Redfield testified that he believes COVID-19 “more likely was a result of an accidental lab leak than a result of a natural spillover event.”

Redfield later testified he doesn’t personally support gain-of-function research, though he wanted to stress to the committee “the men and women that support it are people of good faith, because they truly believe it’s going to lead to a potential benefit.”

New evidence

Jamie Metzl, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank that tends to focus on foreign policy, told the panel that everyone should be open to both hypotheses as new evidence emerges about the origins of COVID-19.

Metzl, who is not a scientist or a medical researcher but a nonresident senior fellow for technology and national security, testified he believes current information makes a lab leak more likely.

“There is no smoking gun proving a laboratory origin hypothesis, but the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a gun that is at very least warm to the touch,” Metzl said.

He noted following a question from panel chairman Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican, that the Chinese government has searched without success for COVID-19 in some of its animal population.

“We know that the Chinese government has actually been very aggressive in trying to find that kind of intermediary host animal. They’ve sequenced about 100,000 animals. They haven’t found anything,” Metzl said. “Everybody has a reason to want to find it, particularly the Chinese government. And I think it’s very telling that after three years, we still haven’t found it.”

Auwaerter, however, noted in response to the same question that researchers still haven’t found that type of link with respect to Ebola.

“Regarding finding intermediaries there are examples, for example, with Ebola virus, where we have not yet found a clear intermediary despite looking very hard. And no one thinks that came about from a lab accident, you know, decades ago,” Auwaerter said.

“So I think it’s still an open question. I think everything does need to be explored,” Auwaerter added. “And there’s always opposing points of view here that need to be weighed and not all hypotheses are weighed equally.”

Objections to GOP witness

While the vast majority of members of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic agreed the search for the origins of COVID-19 should be nonpartisan and insulated from political interference, there were still partisan moments during the hearing.

Democrats took issue with Republicans inviting Nicholas Wade, a former science and health editor at The New York Times, former editor of Science and former editor of Nature, to testify.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, as well as the panel’s ranking member, Raul Ruiz of California, and Rep. Jill Tokuda of Hawaii, all criticized statements Wade made in his book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.”

Mfume noted that several white supremacists have praised the book and that it was “promoted on a neo-Nazi forum that is linked to almost 100 racially motivated attempted murders over the last five years.”

“I have read your book and I’m appalled by it,” Mfume said. “I would hope that giving you this platform does not paint or taint the issue that we’re trying to get to and deal with here.”

Ruiz noted that Wade’s book “suggests that different racial and ethnic groups have evolved to possess genetic variations and traits and behaviors tied to whether they prosper or not.”

“The notion that people of different racial or ethnic groups are more successful or intellectually superior to another because of predisposed genetic makeup is grossly inconsistent with the consensus of scientific and medical scholarship,” Ruiz said.

A few GOP lawmakers on the panel repeatedly criticized the work of Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, including his support of the hypothesis that COVID-19 emerged from a spillover event.

And Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin rebuked former President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, displaying one of the tweets in which Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Raskin said that on at least 42 occasions Trump “openly praised and defended the performance” of the Chinese president and Raskin questioned why Trump never launched an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

“Whatever the origins of COVID-19, whether it’s bats or bureaucrats, no finding will ever exonerate or rehabilitate Donald Trump for his lethal recklessness in mismanaging the crisis in America,” Raskin said.

“Indeed, if COVID-19 was actually the product of a lab leak or the worst bioweapon of mass destruction ever invented — as some have argued and obviously we don’t have the scientific evidence to say any of this yet — it would not only not remove Donald Trump’s culpability, it would only deepen his culpability in the most profound way.”

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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