For a variety of reasons, no credible investigation into the origins of the coronavirus that continues to plague the world has taken place. Beijing has spent more than a year covering up the origin and punishing any country that dares call for an independent investigation. Chinese authorities undermined the WHO investigation so thoroughly that even WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus admitted that its team did not properly investigate the possibility of a lab accident origin and that more work needed to be done.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that “we need to get to the bottom of this,” and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has testified that the U.S. government is investigating both the natural spillover and lab accident theories. But the Biden administration reportedly isn’t really pushing for a genuine investigation into the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was conducting risky experiments through what is known as “gain of function” research on bat coronaviruses that infect humans.
Now, several Republican lawmakers are starting investigations of their own. Their focus is on demanding that U.S. government agencies tell the American people what they know.
“Understanding the cause of this pandemic — and ensuring that something like it never happens again — is the most important question facing the world today,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) wrote in a letter Wednesday to Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “Given the stakes, we cannot afford to settle for a limited, blinkered, or politicized understanding of the origin of this terrible disease.”
NIAID and its parent organization, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), fund much of the collaborative work between U.S. scientists and the Wuhan lab, including extensive work on bat coronaviruses. The letter asks Fauci, who has repeatedly thrown cold water on the lab accident theory, to hand over all available information on U.S. government funding and support for the Wuhan lab, especially relating to gain of function research.
The Republican leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), and two other leading Republicans, wrote to Blinken on Thursday, requesting that he release all documents related to factual claims that the Trump administration State Department made in a Jan. 15 statement — including an assertion that the Wuhan lab was concealing its work with the Chinese military and that several researchers came down with covid-like symptoms in the fall of 2019. The Biden administration confirmed these claims — but the Wuhan scientists deny them. That means that one side is lying.
“We hope your statement about getting to the bottom of the origins of this pandemic includes looking at all possible causes, including the possibility of an accidental leak from a laboratory,” the letter states.
Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee wrote in March to NIH Director Francis Collins, as well as in April to EcoHealth Alliance’s Peter Daszak, the closest collaborator and the fiercest defender of the Wuhan lab, demanding extensive records about their research and collaborations. Collins, Fauci and Daszak have not responded to congressional inquiries nor to my requests for comment.
The Republicans are taking the first steps in a long-overdue effort. Their requests for information require no permission from the Chinese government or the WHO. The State Department, the NIH, NIAID and EcoHealth Alliance should have no reason — and no excuse — to ignore these valid and important congressional inquiries. But without backing from Democrats, who are conspicuously absent from these efforts, these investigations will struggle.
The fact that the origin issue — and especially the lab accident theory — has become politicized is a tragedy. But now, both parties have a responsibility to put politics aside and work together to press governments in Washington and Beijing to disclose everything they know. The longer the delay, the harder the puzzle becomes to solve.
It is clear that the NIH and other U.S. agencies don’t want to have their activities investigated. But they must work with Congress to determine whether their research may be connected to the outbreak. Also, current plans are to expand worldwide collaboration on risky virus research sixfold, through the $1.2 billion Global Virome Project. Shouldn’t we figure out if this research sparked the pandemic before drastically expanding it?
The Chinese government won’t easily allow more access to the Wuhan lab, but the Biden administration must press it to do so. Meanwhile, the investigation can and must proceed now, here in the United States. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep politics out of it as much as possible, because solving the origin question is an urgent task for the security and public health of the entire world.