Lab leak? Why Congress is split on investigating COVID’s origins.

Sarah Silbiger/Reuters
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, shown on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 26, 2021, is among the experts who have said that the lab leak theory into COVID-19’s origins merits further investigation.

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A year and a half into a pandemic that is blamed for the deaths of more than 3 million people, a Chinese lab in Wuhan is under growing scrutiny for a possible connection to the outbreak of COVID-19. On May 26, President Joe Biden called on the intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” to collect and analyze any information that could shed light on how the pandemic started. 

Republican lawmakers, who have raised questions since early 2020 about the virus’s origins and China’s lack of transparency, are making a renewed push for bipartisan investigations in Congress. 

Why We Wrote This

Both sides say it’s important to get the truth of how the pandemic started. Republicans want Congress to investigate the lab leak theory, which has gained new credence. But Democrats are wary of a politicized process.

“This is about us as a country, the United States of America, getting answers,” says Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the lead Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We really need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

But while Democrats say they, too, want to discover the truth, they’re concerned that congressional investigations will just be politicized – especially since the most important answers are likely only obtainable from China.

“We support [the intelligence community’s] efforts to conduct a thorough, objective, evidence-based investigation, without letting anyone’s preferred narrative shape that vital work,” says an official on the Democratic-controlled House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee.

A year and a half into a worldwide pandemic that is blamed for the deaths of more than 3 million people, a Chinese lab in Wuhan is under growing scrutiny for a possible connection to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Republican members of Congress, who have raised questions since early 2020 about China’s lack of transparency about the virus’s origins, are making a renewed push for bipartisan investigations. But with Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate, any congressional inquiries launched without their support will lack subpoena power and authority to compel witnesses to testify. Without those powers, GOP members of Congress are making little headway.

Just ask Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the lead Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has been pressing for answers from various agencies.

Why We Wrote This

Both sides say it’s important to get the truth of how the pandemic started. Republicans want Congress to investigate the lab leak theory, which has gained new credence. But Democrats are wary of a politicized process.

On March 18, she and two GOP colleagues sent the National Institute of Health (NIH) 29 questions requesting information and related documents about how COVID-19 started and whether U.S. taxpayer funds supported research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Two months later, the NIH responded with a two-page letter, defending its grant process and briefly describing the nature of a 2014 grant to the Wuhan lab. It expressed support for continuing investigation into COVID-19’s origins and offered to discuss the grant further in person, but did not provide any of the documents requested, including standard grant paperwork that could have shed light on the Wuhan lab’s research. 

“I’m disappointed, especially with NIH,” says Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the lead Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over health policy and agencies.

“This is about us as a country, the United States of America, getting answers,” she says, adding that those answers will inform policy changes and help prevent future pandemics. “We really need an all-hands-on-deck approach. ... We are urging the Biden administration to lead – to hold China accountable and get the information we need in the public domain.” 

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
Security personnel gather near the entrance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization team in China's Hubei province on Feb. 3, 2021.

As GOP members of Congress urge their Democratic colleagues to lend their weight to the push for answers, both sides worry that partisan politics is getting in the way of truth. Democrats say they, too, want answers about the origins of COVID-19. But they’re concerned that any congressional investigation will just be politicized, further muddying the waters rather than leading to a clear picture – especially since the most important answers are likely only obtainable from China.

In addition, Democrats are concerned that an investigation would allow Republicans to deflect blame from former President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Mr. Trump, who frequently touted the restrictions he placed on travel to the U.S. from China in early February 2020 and his administration’s support for the rapid development of a vaccine, has been roundly criticized for other aspects of his pandemic response, including not better facilitating the distribution of PPE supplies and medical equipment, comparing COVID-19 to the flu, and flouting his own agencies’ guidance on masks.

“Regardless of what we find, whether it lends credence to a natural transmission or a lab accident, it would not vindicate the disastrous response to COVID-19 by former President Trump, including his downplaying the severity of the outbreak during the crucial early months of the pandemic,” says an official on the Democratic-controlled House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee, who characterized the origins of the coronavirus and how to prepare for the next potential pandemic as “serious topics of inquiry.”  

The official added that the intelligence community “is continuing to study the origins of COVID-19, and we support its efforts to conduct a thorough, objective, evidence-based investigation, without letting anyone’s preferred narrative shape that vital work.”

On May 26, President Joe Biden called for the intelligence community to “redouble their efforts” to collect and analyze any information that could shed light on COVID-19’s origins. He asked them to keep Congress “fully apprised” of its work, and report back to the White House within 90 days. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff issued a statement the same day saying that his committee hoped to finish its deep-dive review of the intelligence community’s response to the pandemic “in the coming months,” and warned against “any premature or politically motivated conclusions.” 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden asked U.S. intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic May 13, 2021, saying there is insufficient evidence to conclude “whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.”

Republicans also accuse Democrats of politicizing the pandemic, saying they have used the crisis to expand the reach of government and dramatically increase spending, while avoiding confrontation with China and resisting serious inquiry into the lab leak theory. Some officials within the larger government bureaucracy under former President Trump, including the State Department, reportedly discouraged or possibly blocked investigation into COVID-19’s origins – described by some government officials as a “Pandora’s box,” according to an investigative piece published in Vanity Fair late last month. 

Why lab leak theory is getting a second look

The renewed push for investigating COVID-19’s origins has been fueled in part by new reporting, including a May 23 Wall Street Journal article that said three employees at the Wuhan lab reportedly sought hospital care in November 2019 for symptoms “consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness.” 

The theory of COVID-19’s origins that dominated Democratic discourse and media reports until this spring was that it had been transmitted naturally from animals to humans. An alternative theory, that the virus had escaped from a lab, was dismissed as highly unlikely in February 2020 by a prominent group of scientists including Peter Daszack, who along with the other signatories declared “no competing interests.”

However, the NIH has since acknowledged that Dr. Daszack’s EcoHealth Alliance nonprofit had funneled U.S. federal grant money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is located about nine miles from the wet market originally pinpointed as ground zero of the outbreak. In a May 5, 2021, in-depth analysis of clues about COVID-19’s origins, former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade summarized 2018 and 2019 NIH grant documents involving EcoHealth Alliance as indicating that WIV researchers “set out to create novel coronaviruses with the highest possible infectivity for human cells.” While there is controversy around such research, proponents defend it as crucial to understanding and preventing future pandemics. 

Many media outlets, some of which conflated the lab accident hypothesis with the theory that the virus was engineered in a lab and deliberately released, for months dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a debunked conspiracy theory with racist or xenophobic undertones. But this spring, a series of in-depth articles and investigative reporting leant new weight to the possibility of a lab leak, prompting a renewed push by those in government to get answers on how the pandemic started. 

After an inquiry organized by the World Health Organization was published on March 30, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that all hypotheses remained on the table and vowed to leave no stone unturned in the quest to determine the source of the virus. 

Ng Han Guan/AP
A WHO-China joint study press conference on Feb. 9, 2021, said that an “intermediary host species” was the most likely origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Biden administration has raised questions about methodology and conclusions of the WHO-organized report, including Beijing’s influence over the process, and disagreed with its assessment that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.” Though many experts still see natural occurrence as the more likely scenario, late last month President Biden, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, all said the lab leak hypothesis merited further investigation.

Representative Rodgers says she and her GOP colleagues on the Energy and Commerce Committee are still waiting for answers from NIH. The NIH’s May 19 letter did not directly answer questions about what NIH officials knew about how the Wuhan lab addressed concerns raised in 2018 State Department cables about the lab’s biosafety protocols, or why the NIH suspended a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIH also did not provide any of the requested grant documents that could have shed light on research activities at the Wuhan lab leading up to the outbreak. 

NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, who signed the NIH response, expressed support for further investigation by the WHO into the origins of COVID-19 “without delay,” and offered to discuss the issue further with members of Congress. NIH Director Francis Collins said in an interview published last week by conservative journalist Hugh Hewitt that he was determining how to proceed in concert with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the White House.  

Representative Rodgers and her fellow GOP committee members are also waiting to hear back on a May 6 letter they sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for more information on an earlier State Department assertion that the Wuhan lab cooperated with the Chinese military on “secret projects.” They asked him to provide unclassified documents and declassify other relevant documents related to that assertion, which was made in the final days of the Trump administration.

House Republicans are urging Democrats to join them in getting answers and holding China accountable, something they say is owed to the families of the more than 600,000 Americans and 3 million global citizens whose deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. 

May 28 letter signed by 209 House Republicans, including the top three GOP leaders, cited “mounting evidence” that COVID-19 started in a Wuhan lab and was covered up by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The House Republicans asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to instruct Democratic committee chairs to join GOP efforts to seek answers, and allocate “the full range of tools available to congressional investigators,” including subpoena powers. 

Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, said in a phone interview on Saturday that they have yet to receive any response. “It seems very odd that Speaker Pelosi is one of the only people in Washington that doesn’t want to investigate this serious charge,” he said. 

Speaker Pelosi’s office referred the Monitor’s questions to the House Intelligence Committee, which provided the statement cited above by a committee official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Democratic spokespeople declined the Monitor’s requests for an interview with Chairman Schiff or any of his Democratic colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee, and said that New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was not available for an interview. 

GOP members of Congress are encouraged, however, that in a recent hearing, Rep. Diana DeGette, the Democratic chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, affirmed her support for an investigation, including into whether the virus escaped from a lab. She said she had already spoken with Rep. Morgan Griffith, her Republican counterpart on the subcommittee and a co-author of the letters Representative Rodgers sent to the NIH and State Department. “I agree, I think it’s very important,” said Representative DeGette of Colorado. “We’re going to do whatever investigation is appropriate.”

Would clarity bring consequences?

One of the looming questions is whether getting clarity on COVID-19’s origins would result in any significant U.S.-China policy shifts. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who spearheaded a September 2020 report into the origins of COVID-19 and China’s lack of transparency, has recommended removing China from the U.S. supply chain for medical supplies, rare earth minerals, and advanced semiconductors. 

“The CCP went to extreme lengths to cover up their role in the origin of COVID-19,” he said in an emailed statement to the Monitor. “By pulling supply chains out of the region, we can prevent the expansion of China’s economy, hold them accountable for their malign actions, and protect our national security. 

“The Biden Administration must put pressure on China to get to the bottom of this pandemic and protect our world from future pandemics,” he adds. 

Democrats argue that a congressional investigation is not the right vehicle for securing China’s cooperation and producing objective answers. Republicans acknowledge that while they can’t compel Chinese scientists or officials to testify, Congress is a ready-made venue for asking how COVID-19 started, and whether China engaged in a cover-up of a lab leak. Congress already has a multitude of committees with jurisdiction over health policy, foreign relations, and intelligence, with members and staffers who are well versed in those areas and have the ability to convene prominent experts. 

“The Democrats should want these answers just like we do,” says Representative Scalise. “Frankly, there are people all over the world who want to know that answer. But America is one of the few countries positioned to be able to get those facts out.” 

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