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COVID-19 origins probe plods on with no clear resolution

House could vote on a bill this week that would declassify information on links between the Wuhan Institute and COVID-19

House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, is holding a hearing on the origins of COVID-19 Wednesday, with former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield slated to testify.
House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Chairman Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, is holding a hearing on the origins of COVID-19 Wednesday, with former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield slated to testify. (Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call)

Republicans are continuing the search for answers on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but the path forward is mired in stalled investigations, classified documents and stonewalling from the Chinese government.

Top Republicans are increasingly convinced the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and are once again homing in on U.S. intelligence in the wake of a report that another federal agency believes the virus may have escaped from the lab. 

The Chinese government has rebutted the “lab leak” allegations as political posturing but has refused to cooperate with international investigations in a number of ways — including by shielding key data about the Wuhan Institute’s work.

Ohio Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, is holding a hearing on the origins issue Wednesday, with former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield slated to testify.

Last week, the Senate also passed by voice vote a measure led by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., calling on Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to “declassify any and all information” on links between the Wuhan Institute and COVID-19.  The House Rules Committee will take up the measure this week, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence will mark up an identical House bill on Tuesday.

In the House, Wenstrup and Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., have already requested documents and testimony from 40 federal officials and academics involved in the early days of the pandemic response. 

Comer said he’s hoping to hear from lower-level staff before the committee brings in senior officials like former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, whom many on the right have vilified as a complicit actor in a Chinese cover-up.

“I think they’re going well,” Comer said of negotiations with the witnesses. “We’re working on it. Nothing moves fast in this town.”

Still, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of issuing subpoenas.

“I hope not, but we probably will,” he said.

The subcommittee released a memo Sunday detailing emails on the involvement of Jeremy Farrar, director of research foundation the Wellcome Trust and future chief scientist at the Word Health Organization, in the publication of a crucial March 2020 paper arguing the virus evolved naturally.

The Wellcome Trust did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Fauci on Monday pushed back on the memo’s implications that he directed the paper’s publication to dispel the “lab leak” theory.

“I did not ‘prompt’ the drafting of any publication that would ‘disprove’ the lab leak theory nor was I involved in drafting or editing any portion of the Nature Medicine paper,” he said in a statement. “My only goal was to encourage the expert virologists to evaluate the origin of the COVID-19 virus by providing an objective and scientifically sound examination of the information available at the time.” 

Fauci has repeatedly pledged to cooperate with Republican investigations, saying he has “nothing to hide.”

The hearing follows a Wall Street Journal report that the Department of Energy found with “low confidence” that evidence favors the theory that the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab. 

Other federal agencies remain split on the origin question, with only the FBI concluding with “moderate confidence” that the virus likely came from the lab. Comer and Wenstrup last week broadened their investigation to include the Energy and State departments and the FBI.

Wenstrup has also been working to declassify the full version of an Intelligence Committee report on COVID-19’s origins that was partially released under Democrats last Congress. He accused the intelligence community, often referenced as the IC, of ignoring links between China’s bioweapons program and coronavirus research.

Democrats also support further investigations into COVID-19’s origins, but have not pushed anywhere near as hard as Republicans. Haines published a declassified report under President Joe Biden’s direction in October 2021. 

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., chairman of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, called that report “anemic” and raised concerns that the DNI and broader intelligence community were consulting with ethically conflicted sources.

“I think it’s caused a lot of people to lose trust in the public health establishment, certain elements of the IC, and it’s obviously bad for public health,” he said.

A provision that would have created an independent, bipartisan investigative panel modeled after the probe into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks stalled last year after the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved it as part of the PREVENT Pandemics Act, a broader pandemic prevention bill.

Former Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., publicly called for the provision to be included with other portions that ultimately hitched a ride in the fiscal 2023 omnibus.

“While there is more to do to strengthen our public health system beyond these reforms — and I will keep pushing on this issue no matter what — the PREVENT Pandemics Act represents meaningful, bipartisan progress, carefully negotiated between Republicans and Democrats over nearly a year,” she said in December.  

And another bipartisan investigation from HELP Committee leaders appears to be stalled under the committee’s new leadership. The only report that was ultimately published was an “interim” GOP version from the committee’s former top Republican, North Carolina’s Richard M. Burr, before he retired last year. 

The committee is now governed by Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and ranking member Bill Cassidy, R-La. Murray now leads the Appropriations Committee.

Republicans are also directing more scrutiny to the World Health Organization as negotiations continue on an international pandemic treaty. Cassidy and 14 other senators introduced a nonbinding resolution last week aimed at requiring Senate approval of the final agreement.

Gallagher said the U.S. should be more wary of China’s involvement in international organizations like the WHO in the wake of the pandemic. 

“Obviously it’s going to be hard to get the CCP to open up their files, but there’s stuff we can do with the information that we have at hand, and there’s stuff we can do to pressure them going forward,” Gallagher said. “If nothing else, it should make us very skeptical of their participation in not only the WHO but all international fora because time and again they just haven’t lived up to their commitments. They lie and they just don’t operate as a responsible stakeholder.”

The scrutiny also follows erroneous reports in far-right media that the treaty would cede U.S. authority to the WHO, which has no power over individual nations’ sovereignty.

House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, also accused the WHO of being “complicit” in a cover-up by the Chinese government.

“As the WHO begins the process to move this pandemic treaty forward, America’s sovereign rights and biomedical leadership and innovation must be protected,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “The CCP also must be held accountable.” 

Energy and Commerce Republicans again echoed the call Thursday.

“The American people deserve full transparency regarding what our government knows about how this pandemic started, how taxpayer dollars may have been spent on risky research, and if labs performing such research are upholding the highest standards of safety,” the lawmakers said.

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