Scientists grilled on covid lab-leak theory in House

Republicans raise scenario of Fauci-directed cover-up

Nick Kitchens, a registered nurse for University of Arkansas at Little Rock Health Services, looks over a covid-19 test during a screening Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 at Donaghey Student Center.
Nick Kitchens, a registered nurse for University of Arkansas at Little Rock Health Services, looks over a covid-19 test during a screening Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 at Donaghey Student Center.

The House panel investigating the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic heard testimony Tuesday from influential virologists who concluded in 2020 that the pandemic did not begin as a laboratory leak. The hearing came amid dueling reports from lawmakers and bitter recriminations from the scientists, who say they have been wrongly maligned.

And it traces its beginning to 13 words: "We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible."

That assertion, written in a widely cited paper by five leading virologists studying the early coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, helped prompt government officials and others to repeatedly dismiss the possibility that the pandemic began with a lab accident. But more than 1,200 days later, and framed by a steady change in public opinion about the origins of the virus, the scientists' conclusion was the focus of the House hearing, with Republicans alleging the paper represented a "coverup" purportedly orchestrated by former National Institutes of Health officials Anthony S. Fauci and Francis S. Collins.

"This is not an attack on science. It's not an attack on peer review," Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, the chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, said in an opening statement at the oft-contentious hearing on Tuesday. "We are examining whether scientific integrity was disregarded in favor of political expediency, maybe to conceal or diminish the government's relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology or perhaps its funding of risky gain-of-function coronavirus research."

In a staff report released Tuesday, Republicans homed in on the initial concern of the authors that the virus may have leaked from a lab, which prompted frantic messages between several virologists about the possibility that aspects of the virus appeared man-made, and how that position changed after a Feb. 1, 2020, conference call with Fauci and Collins. The first draft of the virologists' paper, "The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2," was finished within several days and was published in March 2020 in the journal Nature Medicine.

"After publication, Proximal Origin was used to downplay the lab leak hypothesis and [suggest that] those who believe it may be true conspiracy theorists. Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins tracked the paper through the review and publication process," the Republican report asserted, drawing on prior testimony by the virologists, personal messages and other documents. Fauci, Collins and the virologists have rejected the Republican allegations as baseless and politically motivated, saying they updated their positions as they studied the virus, and two of the paper's authors defended their work in front of the panel on Tuesday.

"Let me categorically say that these allegations are absurd and false," Kristian Andersen, a Scripps Research scientist and co-author of the paper, testified in prepared remarks. The "conclusions stated in Proximal Origin were based on scientific data and analyses by a team of international scientists with extensive track records in studying virus emergence and evolution," he said. "None of this work was influenced by Dr. Fauci."

Virologists and evolutionary biologists have generally argued the virus probably spread to humans from a Wuhan market where wild animals were sold and butchered, citing peer-reviewed findings. Democrats on Tuesday released their own report, also drawing on prior testimony, existing documents and newly published messages exchanged between the authors as they crafted the paper in 2020. That review found "there was no coverup of the origins of the covid-19 pandemic and no suppression of the lab leak theory on the parts of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins," according to the Democratic report.

"While the facts remain unknown, we should let our expert communities continue to do their jobs while we, as lawmakers, focus on policies to help prevent the next pandemic and save future lives," Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the panel, said in his opening remarks. "But instead of doing that, we are here, interrogating researchers who wrote a paper three years ago so my colleagues can push their partisan narrative and disparage our nation's public health officials and institutions in the process."

A declassified government intelligence report released last month also said U.S. intelligence officials were unaware of a lab leak that could have caused the pandemic, adding that officials had no evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Chinese laboratory where researchers were studying coronaviruses, had SARS-CoV-2 or a "close progenitor" in its possession before the pandemic.

"All agencies continue to assess that both a natural and laboratory-associated origin remain plausible hypotheses to explain the first human infection," the intelligence report concluded, acknowledging the Wuhan lab suffered from safety lapses such as aging and insufficient equipment. Chinese scientists previously acknowledged widespread safety problems in the country's laboratories, which could be the source of potential outbreaks.

The hearing on Tuesday, which was preceded by Republicans issuing a subpoena to compel Andersen to turn over private communications between the scientists, represented a new front in a years-long debate that has riven the scientific community, amplified tensions between China and the United States, and entangled news organizations that have had to revisit and update past coverage.

The hearing also prompted bitter recriminations from the paper's authors, who said they have been wrongly and persistently maligned. "This is a black day for science. This is no more than a McCarthy-era show trial," Edward Holmes, an Australian virologist and co-author of the paper, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. "We've experienced 3.5 years of harassment and lies for the apparent 'crime' of writing a scientific paper."

Public opinion has shifted since the early days of the pandemic, when a Pew Research Center poll in March 2020 found 29% of Americans believed the virus came from a laboratory. According to a Quinnipiac University poll in March 2023, nearly two-thirds of Americans favored the lab-leak theory over a natural origin, albeit with a significant partisan split. About 87% of Republicans favored the lab-leak theory, compared with 42% of Democrats, the poll found.

The Republican-led House panel has steadily been building its own case that the virus leaked from a laboratory, hosting several hearings and a roundtable with witnesses who favor the theory. "It's a no-brainer that it came from the lab," Johns Hopkins transplant surgeon Martin Makary told the panel at a hearing in March.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and other Republican leaders have touted the party's investigation, saying it has put pressure on the Biden administration to share more information about the origin of the virus. "It's also very important for us to know, to look back [on] mistakes that were made, so those mistakes never get made again in any future pandemic," McCarthy said at a news conference last month.

Fauci told The Post in an interview last year that he was wary of Republicans taking control of Congress and launching such investigations. "It's Benghazi hearings all over again," Fauci said at the time, invoking the Republican-led probes of Hillary Clinton's leadership of the State Department during the 2012 attacks on American compounds in Libya. Those reviews found no new evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton but became a staple of conservative media.

Some Democrats on Tuesday lamented the hearing, warning that the investigation into the virologists could chill scientific research, harm international collaboration, and was distracting from a bipartisan goal of improving biosafety and preventing the next pandemic.

"It would be a dangerous conclusion for this committee to say we should not be working with labs around the world. We absolutely have to work with those labs," Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., said.

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