Emboldened by an Energy Department analysis that concludes with “low confidence” that the coronavirus pandemic probably began with an accidental lab leak in central China, Republicans on Capitol Hill are teeing up new demands for information and broadening their planned probes of covid-19’s origins.
But the Energy Department analysis, first reported Sunday by the Wall Street Journal, arrived just as GOP congressional leaders had embarked on their covid oversight agenda. They have promised multiple probes into whether Chinese officials covered up a lab accident, and targeted scientists such as Anthony S. Fauci, the recently retired U.S. health official whose agency had supported virus research in China. Republicans also cheered FBI Director Christopher A. Wray’s interview on Fox News on Tuesday — his first public comments on the matter — where he confirmed reports that his agency concluded that “a potential lab incident in Wuhan” probably sparked the pandemic.
In interviews on Monday, Republican lawmakers touted the Energy Department’s conclusion, which bolsters long-standing GOP talking points, while acknowledging they had yet to read the classified report.
“It gives us momentum to expose the true origins of covid,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who supported Senate probes into Fauci and argued in favor of the leak theory, citing the virus’s infectiousness and ability to evade human immune systems. “As a physician myself, a biochemistry major, I think that there’s just no way this virus could have come from nature. It’s just too perfect.”
The House select subcommittee probing the coronavirus response, meanwhile, sent letters to the Energy Department, State Department and FBI on Monday, seeking an array of new materials and broadening its investigation into the pandemic’s origins.
“Your documents and testimony are essential to informing the Select Subcommittee about what the U.S. government knew regarding the origins of COVID-19 and when the government knew it,” Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and James Comer (R-Ky.) wrote to Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Monday. Wenstrup chairs the covid panel and Comer leads the House oversight committee.
The GOP-led covid panel in the House, which invited its first experts to a roundtable Tuesday that was largely critical of the Biden administration’s response, also announced a hearing next week to delve into the origins of the virus.
Senate Republicans pledged to continue their own oversight, with lawmakers such as Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) on Monday citing the Energy Department analysis as a reason to impose new transparency rules on the World Health Organization.
Many experts say they support further probes, arguing that understanding the origins of the virus is important to protect against future threats, including possible laboratory accidents. But they caution the cause of the outbreak remains unclear — and may never be conclusively proved since China destroyed animals sold at the Wuhan market when it shut down the market. Chinese authorities have also refused to cooperate with international investigators demanding unfettered access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“In my view, we don’t have enough information to be highly confident in either a laboratory source or a natural source for the pandemic,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a former Biden administration official. “We need to continue to be in seek [answers] mode.”
Some scientists said Monday that GOP-led probes had become counterproductive, calling for lawmakers to instead focus on peer-reviewed research suggesting a natural origin for the virus. There is no evidence SARS-CoV-2 was in any laboratory before the outbreak.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wondering whether this pandemic started with a lab leak,” said University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, a specialist in viral epidemics, who noted he was among the earliest proponents of the leak theory — before “a year of really intense research” prompted him to change his mind. Worobey has since published peer-reviewed findings suggesting the virus probably spread to humans from a Wuhan market where wild animals were sold and butchered, a theory also backed by other experts.
“This latest [Energy Department]-generated media cycle is just another reminder of how disjointed the discussion is from the scientific evidence,” Worobey said.
Four current and former administration officials, who have been briefed on the government’s classified investigations, also cautioned against relying solely on the Energy Department’s new report, noting that its conclusions are not shared by most agencies probing the virus.
One of those former officials told The Washington Post that he entered government “open to persuasion” on the leak theory and left more persuaded by the natural origin hypothesis.
“I was just really, genuinely curious what they actually knew,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who joined the Biden administration as one of the senior officials overseeing the coronavirus response in 2021 and requested a classified briefing on the virus’s origins. “It was a mixed picture [then], and I think that it remains a mixed picture … it’s kind of a Rorschach test, and you can read into it whatever you want.”
The intelligence agencies reached agreement in 2021 that the virus was not a bioweapon; most agencies also said Chinese officials did not know about the virus before the outbreak began. Chinese officials have repeatedly dismissed leak arguments, denouncing the new Energy Department report as defamatory.
The leak theory was debated within the Trump administration and in high-level public health circles as early as January 2020, floated by lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) the following month and eventually embraced by President Donald Trump. Many scientists pushed back against what they described as “conspiracy theories,” claiming such discussion was reckless, and Democrats and experts such as Fauci emphasized the idea was not supported by emerging evidence.
Backlash among scientists prompted social media companies to limit posts about whether the virus was man-made, contending that it was misinformation. Media organizations, including The Post, also gave such arguments short shrift before revising or correcting the stories as more evidence emerged that the leak theory was under consideration.
“The controversy basically turned into a political blame game, and then people pinned themselves to certain positions, which tends to close the mind rather than keep it open,” said Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor who chairs the Covid Crisis Group, a team of experts who have spent more than two years probing the virus response.
But by 2021, even Trump critics were acknowledging the possibility that the virus may have slipped out accidentally from a Chinese laboratory, amid the Biden administration’s reexamination of the issue and Americans’ frustrations with a pandemic that upended society and killed more than a million people. That June, comedian Jon Stewart floated the leak theory in an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” joking about the coincidence of a new coronavirus emerging in a city where Chinese scientists were studying coronaviruses. Most Americans that month thought the virus came from a lab leak in China, according to a Politico-Harvard poll at the time, a stance that cut across party lines.
Republicans, who last year campaigned on promises to grill Fauci and other scientists about their virus research, reiterated their calls on the heels of the Energy Department’s analysis. On Sunday, House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders vowed to probe deeper into “why high-ranking government officials, with help from Big Tech and the media, sought early on to silence any debate” about the virus’s origins.
Members of the House covid panel, such as Reps. Richard McCormick (R-Ga.) and Michael Cloud (R-Tex.), have pledged to use their new authority to expand their investigations.
Media slandered millions of Americans as "conspiracy theorists" spreading "misinformation" for asking questions about natural immunity & lab-leak origin for Covid.— Rich McCormick (@RepMcCormick) February 27, 2023
I hope the self-appointed "experts" in our newsrooms take a moment to consider how to cover stories in the future. https://t.co/X9ZmaEVunC
Democrats said they supported further investigation but called for patience.
“The truth is that we need to continue to get to the bottom of this,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (Calif.), the covid panel’s top Democrat, chastising the “politicization, partisan rhetoric and conspiratorial accusations” that he said have impeded the covid response.
“The important part is to allow the intelligence and public health communities to do their work, before we jump to conclusions,” Ruiz added in an interview.
Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.