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Broad focus planned for revamped COVID panel under GOP majority

New chairman plans a ‘lessons learned’ push while also looking at coronavirus origins

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, will lead the panel.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, will lead the panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The new chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic is planning a wide focus on future pandemic preparedness and the impacts of the pandemic on the economy, education and the national supply chain.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, categorized the panel’s mission as an “after-action review” and “lessons learned.” He also plans to continue work on the origins of COVID-19 he started through the intelligence committee.

“That’s going to be part of this but it’s not the only thing,” he said.

“What I want to come away with is — whether something comes from nature, whether it came from the lab, whether it came from a bioweapon intentionally or unintentionally — that we can do our best to be prepared to to fight it, to maybe predict it,” said Wenstrup, a podiatric surgeon. “And make sure — and I’m speaking as a doctor — how do we treat patients? How do we prevent people from getting sick or whatever the case may be.”

But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested the origins would play a prominent role in the panel’s work, saying the members would “finally get answers to the COVID origins and the federal government’s gain of function research that contributed to the pandemic.”

Gain-of-function research involves strengthening different components of a virus in order to study ways to treat or prevent it, but whether the experiments funded by the National Institutes of Health in Wuhan, China, qualify as gain-of-function are hotly debated.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., the ranking member of the coronavirus subcommittee last year, mentioned the virus origins as well in a press conference Wednesday. He also noted Republicans’ ongoing demands for a better accounting of nursing home deaths in states like New York, where death totals were vastly undercounted.

“The governor’s never released that data so we obviously want to get answers for families,” Scalise said.

Panel makeup

The panel has been the site of fiery debates around the origins of the virus, as well as external influence in and policies of both the Trump and Biden administrations.

Democrats have not yet named members to the panel, but only two of the GOP members from last year — Nicole Malliotakis of New York and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa — are returning. Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist, is the former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

New members include controversial figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a prominent conspiracy theorist who has accused the vaccines of causing an “extremely high amount” of deaths, and Ronny Jackson of Texas, the former White House physician who came under fire for allegedly overprescribing medications and drinking on the job, which he has denied.

Jackson is a vocal proponent of the theory that the lab originated in a Wuhan lab. He, like Greene, has also targeted former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci for the alleged gain-of-function research, claiming that the “blood of millions of Americans” is on his hands.

The subcommittee’s work will intersect with other committees like Energy and Commerce and the new select committee on China. China Committee Chair Mike Gallagher, R-Fla., who also favors the “lab leak” theory over the natural evolution theory, said he would build off of Wenstrup’s work. Gallagher also plans to focus on where China hid or delayed information that impeded the U.S. response.

“Then with that enhanced understanding of what happened, tease out the broader implications for the future of biosecurity and biowarfare,” he said. “And there’s where I think we can play a unique role.”

Democrats have raised concerns about the potential for the coronavirus panel to veer into conspiracy theory territory, which will certainly be renewed given the panel’s new membership.

“I hope they don’t bring any forward,” Wenstrup retorted.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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