Hearing exposes how politics slowed U.S. investigation into COVID origins

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Congress is seeking more information about U.S. intelligence related to COVID-19’s origins. (Photo credit: Flickr)

The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in a hearing Tuesday continued to peel back the curtain on the sluggish early U.S. investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

More than three years have passed since a highly transmissible novel coronavirus first emerged out of Wuhan, China, yet key details about the pandemic’s origin are still unclear.

The pandemic’s earliest days remain in dispute as certain intelligence remains classified. Strong evidence demonstrating the virus gained the ability to infect humans in an intermediate animal has yet to emerge. Some evidence may have been lost to time as the possibility of a lab origin has been maligned as a conspiracy theory for years. Momentum languished for years as Democrats loath to investigate controlled Congressional committees.

Former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in sworn testimony that the intelligence community has enough circumstantial evidence to conclude a research related accident at the city’s coronavirus labs sparked the pandemic.

“My informed assessment as a person with as much access to intelligence as anyone in the initial year of the pandemic … is that a lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, the science, and common sense,” said Ratcliffe, who served as the Director of National Intelligence from May 2020 to January 2021.

Yet the public remains in the dark about the full scope of the evidence.

Committee Chair Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said that current Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has not yet produced a single document in response to a letter the committee sent in February seeking the evidence that undergirded the intelligence community’s inconclusive report on the pandemic’s origin.

Wenstrup alluded to a statute that empowers Congress to provide oversight of the intelligence community.

“When I ask questions of some of the people from the IC, they tell me it’s their policy not to answer my questions,” Wenstrup said.

In March, Congress unanimously passed a bill requiring certain intelligence about the origins of Covid-19 to be declassified within 90 days.

Tuesday’s hearing addressed how early efforts to uncover the pandemic’s origin were impeded in 2020 by obstruction both from Beijing and from within Washington.

Chinese authorities destroyed viral samples, jailed witnesses and journalists and misled global health authorities about human-to-human transmission, Ratcliffe testified. They have declined to produce exculpatory evidence that could quiet suspicions about its coronavirus labs, including data detailing the coronaviruses they sampled and cataloged.

Experts within the U.S. government, meanwhile, were concerned about how certain intelligence could impact U.S. relations with China, according to Ratcliffe. Due to their antipathy for President Donald Trump, they were reluctant to produce intelligence that could provide firepower for hawkish policies, he said.

A key piece of evidence was first revealed in a State Department fact sheet released in the waning days of the Trump administration over the objections of government officials both within and outside the department.

It reportedly shows that Wuhan Institute of Virology workers had fallen ill in the fall of 2019.

“It bowled us over frankly to find…US government information about a cluster of illnesses in that lab,” said David Feith, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Feith said they faced headwinds from other government agencies in making this information public.

“When COVID broke out in Wuhan practically on the doorsteps of that lab, we did not have folks from other parts of the government raising their hands to educate the non-experts … in fact the folks from other parts of the government that worked these issues were deflecting,” Feith said.

The Department of Energy, which includes the U.S. national labs, recently changed its assessment of the pandemic’s origin to favor a lab origin with low confidence, but the details of that new intelligence have also not been publicly shared.

The witnesses also detailed how leaders of the National Institutes of Health and top virologists were hostile to the idea of a lab origin, hindering fledgling investigations into that theory.

Emails obtained by journalists demonstrate that Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and Anthony Fauci, head of NIH’s infectious diseases institute, harbored concerns about coronavirus virology in Wuhan in early 2020, especially in light of NIH funding for the work. They never relayed these concerns to Ratcliffe, who was confirmed in May 2020.

“None of the information [from the Coronavirus Task Force] was consistent with what the intelligence showed. Some of those individuals, which do include Dr. Fauci … were referring to it as a conspiracy theory,” said Ratcliffe.

Nongovernmental scientists briefed U.S. officials across agencies on an “analytic exchange” phone call convened by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in March 2020, according to Feith.

The subject of the briefing was a controversial article that stigmatized the lab leak theory titled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2,” the most impactful scientific article of 2020.

The scientists who briefed the government cited the article to state that the novel virus could not have been engineered, which Feith speculates undergirded the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “unusual” statement in April 2020 that the virus could not have been engineered.

Feith testified that he was not permitted to disclose the identity of the scientists but did confirm that he was briefed by one or more of the “proximal origin” authors.

The scientists also stressed the “good quality” and “robust biosafety and biosecurity programs” of China’s virology labs, Feith said.

It would later become apparent that Collins had expressed concern about coronavirus virology occuring at a relatively lax BSL-2 level, far lower than the BSL-4 level required for many pandemic potential pathogens.

According to Ratcliffe, some scientists who briefed intelligence officials said that an intermediate host would soon be identified. But virologists still haven’t yet been able to identify strong zoonotic evidence, especially as it relates to unusual aspects of the virus not seen in other SARS-like coronaviruses.

“The more time that passes, the further we get without anything tying COVID-19 to nature — no environmental source, no intermediate host, no reservoir species, none of that — makes it less and less likely it’s of natural origin,” Ratcliffe said.

Some of these same virologists involved in stigmatizing the lab leak theory in 2020 have worked with collaborators, using samples collected by the China CDC, to publish evidence that supports the theory that the pandemic originated in a wet market in Wuhan in the winter of 2019.

They have argued that this evidence is so robust that it renders any investigation of a lab origin pointless and dangerous.

Yet none of the members of the select subcommittee engaged with this literature much.

Some Democrats — even while expressing disapproval of the Trump administration — expressed uncertainty about the pandemic’s origin.

“I could very well argue the lab origin because China did not allow folks into the hot zone. I could also make a case for why folks initially thought it jumped from an animal to a human,” said Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif. “I think we have to take both theories seriously.”

Ratcliffe and Feith both testified that they hoped the State Department memo released in January 2021 detailing the sick Wuhan Institute of Virology workers and other key details would spur interest in deeper investigations.

But the investigation sputtered with Democrats in the majority in Congress.

Wenstrup reaffirmed his desire for the investigation to culminate in a bipartisan report, saying that fierce partisanship under former Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., had previously rendered that impossible.

Legislation requiring tighter regulations of gain-of-function virology may result.

“Gain of function technologies … where the deadliest viruses can conceivably be fused with the most infectious ones appear to pose a species level risk to human life,” Feith said.

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