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Opinion New congressional report says covid-19 likely emerged in Wuhan months earlier than originally thought

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) speaks during a news conference on “China covid-19 accountability” on Capitol Hill on June 23. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The congressional report referenced in this article misstated the value of service contract requests issued by the Wuhan Institute of Virology in September 2019. The values for the air-conditioning and security service procurement projects have been updated.

Nineteen months after the start of the pandemic, the Chinese government continues to actively thwart a real investigation into the origins of covid-19. Now, a new GOP congressional report alleges that Beijing was covering up the outbreak for months longer than previously assumed.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee minority staff, led by ranking Republican Michael McCaul (Tex.), released Monday an 84-page addendum to their previously issued report on the origins of covid-19. Their new research focuses on whether the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the world’s leading bat coronavirus research center, as well as other labs in Wuhan, could have been the source of the outbreak. The report also presents extensive evidence that the international community may need to revise its timeline of the outbreak.

“It is our belief the virus leaked sometime in late August or early September 2019,” McCaul said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “When they realized what happened, Chinese Communist Party officials and scientists at the WIV began frantically covering up the leak. … But their coverup was too late — the virus was already spreading throughout the megacity of Wuhan.”

In January 2020, Chinese researchers reported that the first confirmed cases of covid-19 occurred in December of 2019, some of which were linked a seafood market in Wuhan (although not the earliest cases). In March 2020, China traced its first case back to Nov. 17, 2019. But since then, more and more evidence has emerged that suggests that the virus was circulating in Wuhan well before that time.

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As the committee’s report notes, the Wuhan Institute of Virology took its main public virus database offline on Sept. 12, 2019. Dozens of athletes from several countries who attended the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan in late October reported they came down with covid-like illnesses either while they were in Wuhan or shortly after returning home. The committee report also references commercially available satellite imagery that shows significantly increased activity at the six Wuhan hospitals closest to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in September and October of 2019.

The committee staff also unearthed an archived version of a contract competition for a new $128,000 “Security Service Procurement Project” that was issued by the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Sept. 12, the same day the virus database went mysteriously offline. Four days later, the Wuhan Institute of Virology announced a new contract competition to completely renovate its air conditioning system for an estimated $606,000. Both contract announcements were later scrubbed from the Chinese Ministry of Finance website.

“Based on the material collected and analyzed by the Committee Minority Staff, the preponderance of evidence suggests SARS-CoV-2 was accidentally released from a Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory sometime prior to September 12, 2019,” the report states.

Understanding the timeline of the outbreak is crucial to getting to the truth about the origins of the virus. In an interview with CNN that aired in March, Robert Redfield, who directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the outbreak, said, “If I was to guess, this virus started transmitting somewhere in September, October in Wuhan.” Redfield also said he believed the virus originated from research at the Wuhan lab.

The committee report goes into extensive detail about the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s documented research modifying bat coronaviruses. It accuses American scientists of deliberately working to further the Chinese government’s coverup by bullying other scientists who wanted to investigate the lab leak hypothesis and misleading the world about the nature of the work U.S. scientists were doing in collaboration with the Wuhan labs.

The report singles out Peter Daszak, the head of the U.S. government funded nonprofit organization EcoHealth Alliance, who awarded several subgrants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and worked closely for many years with their main bat coronavirus team, led by Shi Zhengli. Daszak was instrumental in organizing a letter in February 2020 in the Lancet “condemn[ing] conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” and he has consistently defended the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“We have uncovered strong evidence that suggests Peter Daszak is the public face of a CCP disinformation campaign designed to suppress public discussion about a potential lab leak,” the report states, pointing to emails between Daszak and other scientists the committee says were part of his effort to steer the narrative away from the Wuhan labs.

Daszak was the sole American on the World Health Organization’s study mission to China, which declared the lab leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely.” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later admitted that its team did not properly investigate the possibility of a lab accident origin and that more work needed to be done.

The Lancet commission on covid-19 removed Daszak from its team focusing on the origins of the pandemic after Daszak filed an updated conflict of interest statement about his collaboration with the Wuhan labs. McCaul wants him to be subpoenaed to testify and is demanding the EcoHealth Alliance hand over its relevant records to Congress. (The EcoHealth Alliance did not respond to a request for comment. Daszak also did not respond to a request for comment.)

The new GOP congressional report contains no smoking guns that will settle the debate over the origins of covid-19, but it presents a convincing case that the lab leak theory must be investigated thoroughly, with or without the Chinese government’s permission. As McCaul argues, that investigation must begin here at home.

The Biden administration’s 90-day intelligence review will not be sufficient. Calls for a 9/11-style commission are increasing. Without investigating the Wuhan labs and all U.S. collaboration with them, there’s no way to claim we have done our best to learn how the pandemic started, so we can prevent the next one. Uncovering the truth is crucial to our national security and our public health.