The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House GOP to embark on sweeping probe of covid origin, U.S. response

With new control of the House, the party is set to use its growing power and more prominent stage to air additional attacks against the Biden administration

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), left, shakes hands with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) after nominating McCarthy for speaker on the House's 13th ballot last week. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post)
6 min

House Republicans on Monday commissioned a special investigative panel focused on the coronavirus pandemic, hoping to leverage their new, powerful majority to press scientists and federal officials about the origin of the public health crisis and the government’s response to it.

Party lawmakers officially chartered the new effort in a sprawling package setting the chamber’s rules for the next two years, awarding it a sweeping mandate — from looking into vaccine development, school closures and other mitigation measures to examining the roughly $5 trillion in emergency federal aid approved since early 2020.

Republicans have long derided Democrats, public health experts and others who advocated for an aggressive government response to covid-19, which has claimed millions of lives globally. At the center of GOP criticism is the suspicion that the coronavirus originated out of laboratory experiments in Wuhan, China, potentially backed by U.S. money — a view at odds with peer-reviewed scientific papers pointing to a more likely origin in a Wuhan market.

In the process, Republican lawmakers also have clashed with scientists and doctors on a wide array of policies meant to arrest the spread of the virus — opposing vaccine mandates, blasting in-person capacity limits and rejecting new federal funding for tests, treatments and other tools.

With new control of the House, however, the GOP aims to surface those concerns in a more prominent setting, questioning a wide array of current and former government officials, potentially including Anthony S. Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The panel, officially named as the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, essentially replaces a Democrat-led legislative body that had focused its work on monitoring emergency coronavirus aid for fraud. Under Republicans, it does not yet have a leader, but it is expected to hold its first hearing in February.

“There’s a lot of confusion out there, there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, and I believe every American regardless of their political ideology would like to know the truth,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who is set to chair the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, under whose umbrella the covid panel will do its work.

Comer said that congressional investigators would “talk to the researchers,” including “all of the people that were involved” at the National Institutes of Health around the development of vaccines. In December, the congressman joined with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is set to oversee other investigations of the Biden administration, to demand Fauci and NIH retain records involving “the origins of covid-19, the [Chinese government’s] efforts to cover it up, and all related national security risks.”

NIH advisers urge tighter oversight of experiments on deadly viruses

The new panel highlights the tectonic shift underway in Washington after two years of Democratic control of Congress and the White House. Even before the GOP officially captured the House, Republicans had made clear that they would embark on several politically charged probes — predominantly targeting Biden and his top aides and family members.

In recent months, GOP lawmakers have told the White House to preserve records related to the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago, the private Florida residence of former president Donald Trump. They have signaled other coming investigations of Biden’s domestic and foreign policies, including his 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. And they have set in motion an entire investigative body to look into the “weaponization of the federal government,” focused on law enforcement and national security agencies.

“We will hold the swamp accountable, from the withdrawal of Afghanistan to the origins of covid and to the weaponization of the FBI,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on Saturday in his first remarks after winning the leadership post.

In an interview Monday, Comer stressed that the upcoming coronavirus inquiry would have a wide agenda, but he rejected the idea that its focus is political in nature.

“This isn’t about Joe Biden or Donald Trump. This is about covid-19,” he said, later adding: “We’re concerned about some government employees, and these employees were hired long before the previous two presidents. So I don’t think it’s political at all.”

The official charter for the 12-member subcommittee tasks it with exploring the origin of the pandemic as well as federal funding for “gain-of-function research.” The term refers to scientific efforts to create novel versions of pathogens to better understand how they work and, potentially, to combat them.

Republicans including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have charged for years that the U.S. government funded such research at a key lab in China, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, creating “super viruses” and potentially sparking the global spread of the coronavirus. Those accusations often have drawn sharp, public derision from Fauci, who once described Paul’s contention as “entirely and completely incorrect.”

To date, there is no evidence the novel coronavirus was in a laboratory before the outbreak, and Chinese scientists say they never had it in any of their facilities. Peer-reviewed scientific papers, meanwhile, have attributed the start of the pandemic to a market where the virus may have leaped from animals to humans. But Republicans have maintained otherwise and repeatedly signaled a desire to probe the matter further — setting up the new majority to force federal officials to testify on “gain of function” research and the “lab leak” theory.

Fauci, for his part, previously has expressed an openness to testifying in front of Congress. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Where did the covid aid money go? Takeaways from The Post's 'Covid Money Trail' investigation.

Republicans also intend to explore capacity restrictions on schools and businesses, which experts for a time saw as necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus, especially before vaccines and antivirals were available. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee, said during floor debate Monday that the focus would allow lawmakers to “finally look into the financial and societal impacts of shutdowns.”

And the House’s new, guiding rules indicated the select subcommittee would similarly probe the “development of vaccines and treatments,” with Comer on Monday citing an interest in the “effectiveness of the vaccines and the concerns that people are starting to raise with respect to side effects.”

In a sign of their commitment, Republicans late last year secured an end to a policy requiring that military service members be vaccinated against the coronavirus. They brokered the deal as part of a sweeping measure authorizing Pentagon spending, having previously threatened to shut down the government just to end the policy.

The GOP also pledged to probe the roughly $5 trillion in emergency federal spending adopted since the start of the pandemic. The relief packages — all but one of which was bipartisan in nature, and one of which was signed into law by Trump — helped unemployed workers and cash-starved businesses in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But the money also enabled vast waste, fraud and abuse, with criminals taking advantage of lax federal regulations and some state officials, largely Republicans, put the money toward tax cuts, immigration crackdowns and other pet projects.

Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.