The origin of COVID-19—whether natural or the product of a lab—is a crucial yet unresolved issue.
Minority staff of a key Senate committee, however, just took a big step forward in solving the mystery. In an “Interim Report” dated October 2022, the Republican staff concludes:
While precedent of previous outbreaks of human infections from contact with animals favors the hypothesis that a natural zoonotic spillover is responsible for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 [the novel coronavirus], the emergence [of] SARS-CoV-2 that resulted in the pandemic was most likely the result of a research-related incident. This conclusion is not intended to be dispositive.
The 35-page report from GOP staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is a refreshing exception to the heated rhetoric that mars COVID-19 debates.
It is a careful and measured presentation. It is comprehensive and detailed, heavily citing (in 225 footnotes) various reports and the professional, peer-reviewed literature.
The Senate report details the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a center of China’s intense, bat-based coronavirus research, the strange genetic features of the novel coronavirus, and the Wuhan lab’s troubled history of biosecurity problems.
Most importantly, the Senate report clarifies what we don’t know, saying:
If the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of the zoonotic spillover of [the virus] SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan from an intermediate host species, there should be evidence of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in animals before it spilled over into humans. Instead, there is no evidence that any animal was infected with SARS-CoV-2 prior to the first human cases.
At the same time, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., and colleagues on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have been looking into the connection between U.S. officials at the National Institutes of Health and EcoHealth Alliance, a research organization funded by NIH since 2014 that had worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Communist China.
British scientist Jeremy Farrar of Wellcome Trust conveyed some skepticism among his colleagues over the idea that the virus had a natural origin in his email Feb. 2, 2020, to Dr. Francis Collins, head of NIH; Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH’s principal deputy director.
For example, Dr. Robert Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine, one of Farrar’s colleagues, said there was no “plausible” scenario that such a virus developed in nature in the way the novel coronavirus did.
Opinion positing an “unnatural” origin for the virus that causes COVID-19 quickly became unfashionable at NIH and elsewhere.
Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nicholas Wade reports that in March 2020, leading virologists and medical scientists, including those who had received NIH funding, tried to debunk the alleged “conspiracy theory” in letters to two professional journals, The Lancet and Nature Medicine.
Dr. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a research company that got substantial NIH funding for its work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, joined 26 other scientists in signing a remarkable letter that March 7 to The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal.
A statement of solidarity with China’s health professionals who were battling COVID-19, it reads, in part:
Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the Director-General of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture. We want you, the science and medical professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus.
At the bottom of the letter, the authors (notably Daszak) affirmed: “We declare no competing interests.”
On Feb. 4, 2020, Dr. Kristian Andersen, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research Institute, emailed Daszak and others to note: “The main crackpot theories going around at the moment relate to the virus somehow being engineered with intent and that is demonstrably not the case.”
Andersen and five colleagues co-authored a letter to Nature Medicine declaring that the novel coronavirus was “not a laboratory construct.”
The recent Senate report states: “Since January 3, 2020, government officials in the People’s Republic of China have prohibited sharing or publishing any information on SARS-CoV-2 without state review and approval.”
Given China’s stubborn noncooperation, it remains a mystery how NIH officials, or The Lancet or Nature Medicine correspondents, possibly could claim such moral certainty that COVID-19 had a natural origin.
By April 2020, the notion of a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology continued to gain some traction—particularly since President Donald Trump opined that the novel coronavirus emerged from a Chinese lab, a view later held by Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On April 16, 2020, NIH’s Collins told Fauci, Tabak, and others that they should find some way to “put down this very destructive conspiracy.” Collins emphasized that the “lab leak theory” could damage “science and international harmony.”
While NIH officials were denying that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese lab, U.S. State Department officials had independently come to a quite different conclusion.
In a remarkable unclassified memo in April 2020, State Department officials examined five candidates for the origin of the virus, and concluded: “There is no direct, smoking gun evidence to prove that a leak from Wuhan labs caused the pandemic, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest such is the case.”
The memo goes on to state: “The Wuhan labs remained the most likely yet least probed. All other possible places of the viruses’ origin have been proven false. The WCDC (Wuhan Center for Disease Control) and WIV (Wuhan Institute of Virology) are least scrutinized and remain mysterious.
The origin of COVID-19, and what American officials knew at the time, is just one of many unresolved issues swirling around America’s response to the pandemic. Congressional hearings on the origins of COVID-19 and the many other related issues—especially the failures by ‘trusted’ public health officials—must become a priority for the new Congress.
The list of issues includes:
- The absence of a central command post for coordinating a proper federal response.
- Failure to provide complete and consistent data.
- The federal bureaucracy’s COVID-19 testing debacle.
- Neglect of the National Strategic Stockpile.
- Creation of mass confusion on masks and mandates.
- Costly and severely damaging school closures.
- Adoption of a flawed vaccine policy.
- The decision either to ignore or downplay natural immunity.
- Imposition of unprecedented lockdowns.
- The decision to ignore or overlook physicians’ front-line clinical experience.
- Attempted suppression of legitimate scientific dissent.
During the pandemic, federal government officials did several things right, such as giving medical professionals maximum flexibility through regulatory reform while fostering rapid vaccine development amid a national emergency.
Nonetheless, federal officials did many things wrong, and some of the problems spanned several presidential administrations.
Congress has an obligation to find out why, exactly, government officials acted as they did and then craft legislation to prevent a repeat of the same mistakes when America faces the next pandemic. Restoring public trust is Job One.
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