More than 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic, our government leaders still can’t manage to have a rational conversation about a crucial public health question: How did the covid-19 crisis begin? While our leaders bicker, we are losing sight of the urgent need to fully investigate the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, including a full investigation of the labs in Wuhan, China.

Tuesday’s yelling match between Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) brought the origins issue back into the public eye in the worst possible way. This was not the pair’s first public fight on the matter, and both men came prepared to do battle. But their clash was all heat and no light. They got bogged down in a technical and irrelevant debate over whether the bat coronavirus research the National Institutes of Health funded in Wuhan qualifies as “gain of function” research.

Paul, who believes the evidence points to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the world’s leading bat coronavirus lab, as the source of the outbreak, pressed Fauci about a scientific paper by WIV’s head bat researcher, Shi Zhengli. Arguing that her work modifying viruses to make them more transmissible to humans constitutes “gain of function research,” he accused Fauci of lying to Congress, a federal crime.

Fauci insisted that it “was judged by qualified staff up and down the chain as not being gain of function.” He was using a specific definition crafted by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 when the Obama administration’s pause on gain of function research was lifted. “And Senator Paul, you do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly,” Fauci added.

Paul responded by accusing Fauci of “trying to obscure responsibility for 4 million people dying around the world.” Fauci called Paul a liar. The exchange ended with each side declaring victory.

Both men were playing to the cameras, but many scientists think Paul actually does know what he’s talking about. One of them is Rutgers University microbiologist and biosafety expert Richard Ebright, whom Paul quoted as saying this research “matches, indeed epitomizes the definition of gain of function research.”

Other scientists, even those who believe the lab leak theory likely, argue that Fauci is technically correct, although they note that the official definition is so narrow it enables anyone to avoid the review process Fauci himself helped to establish. In other words, if the oversight system for reviewing risky research is almost never used, what good is it?

But it doesn’t matter which “gain of function” definition you prefer. What everyone can now see clearly is that NIH was collaborating on risky research with a Chinese lab that has zero transparency and zero accountability during a crisis — and no one in a position of power addressed that risk. Fauci is arguing the system worked. It didn’t. Even if the lab leak theory isn’t true, what’s clear is that we need more oversight of this risky research, both in the United States and in China.

Fauci also told Paul there’s no possibility the research in the paper Paul cited directly led to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but Paul correctly called this out as a straw man. That specific project was only one element of the U.S. government multiagency effort that for years pumped U.S. money and know-how into these Wuhan labs, via the EcoHealth Alliance, including NIH, USAID and the Pentagon. According to an intelligence fact sheet released by the Trump administration and partially confirmed by the Biden administration, the WIV took our help and used it to build another, secret part of the lab, where they worked with the Chinese military.

Congress and the media would be derelict not to examine the decisions by Fauci and others that led to this collaboration. But rather than respond with openness and transparency, Fauci has consistently thrown cold water on the lab leak theory. Right now, NIH and other government agencies are ignoring congressional requests for more information about their relationships with these Chinese labs.

This matters right now because the World Health Organization is starting a second attempt to investigate the origins of the outbreak, this time including a call to investigate the labs. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is insisting that it will never allow a real investigation into the Wuhan lab. It will be up to the U.S. government to lead the campaign to pressure Beijing to play ball.

Looking ahead, we must question whether U.S. government investment in this risky research, especially in collaboration with China, is worth these risks. Certainly, the current plan to spend $1.2 billion to drastically expand the initiative known as the Global Virome Project, an effort to dig up dangerous viruses and experiment on them in labs, including labs in China, must be totally reexamined.

This is ultimately not about Fauci or Paul or even gain of function research. This is about getting to the truth of how this pandemic started so we can adjust our policies to prevent the next one. That means avoiding politics, not quibbling over semantics and pushing forward without bias or pre-conclusions. This is an urgent issue for our national security and public health.

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