Congress investigates COVID-19 lab leak theory, Utah congressmen weigh in
Rep. Chris Stewart plans to reintroduce legislation banning gain-of-function research and requiring full transparency on past funding
Congress convened its first committee hearing Wednesday investigating the origins of COVID-19. The subcommittee’s Republican chairman Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio called its work determining the genesis of the virus “fundamental to helping us predict and prevent a future pandemic.”
During the hearing, the witnesses were asked whether they thought Dr. Anthony Fauci, former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the National Institute of Health, misled Americans on the origin of the virus and about the potential that it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Energy have recently said they favor the lab leak theory over the theory that the virus jumped from bats to humans.
Dr. Robert Redfield, former head of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, told the committee he believes he was intentionally excluded from meetings on the origins of COVID-19 by Fauci because he had made it clear he disagreed with him that the virus had mutated naturally and instead was a product of gain-of-function research.
“I was told they made a decision that they would keep (the meetings) confidential until they came up with a single narrative,” Redfield said. “Which I will argue is antithetical to science. Science never selects a single narrative, we foster debate and we are confident that with debate science will eventually get to the truth.”
Nicholas Wade, former science editor at The New York Times and Nature, agreed, saying although he doesn’t know why, he believes Fauci and Collins attempted to direct the scientific community’s focus away from the gain-of-function research origins hypothesis.
“Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci are well known to the public and on Capitol Hill,” Wade said. “It’s hard to believe that in the twilight of their long careers they would mishandle an issue as serious as the origin of the COVID virus. Yet that is what the evidence seems to point to.”
Ranking member Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., agreed that determining the origins of COVID-19 is important but insisted that the congressional investigation not get political or that it “vilify our public health experts.”
Utah congressmen’s support of investigation
Although none of Utah’s House delegation sit on the committee, they each told the Deseret News a congressional investigation is important to rebuild trust between Americans and public health professionals and scientists.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is believed to have originated in and around Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019 before spreading rapidly around the globe. States and nations quickly implemented social distancing polices of varying intensity. To date, COVID-19 has been listed as a cause of death for more than 1 million Americans and nearly 7 million worldwide.
“Three years ago, Americans heard warnings and direction from Dr. Anthony Fauci and accepted it as true,” Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart said. “They were willing to comply in order to help,” but he said now the veracity of the reasoning behind what was done to mitigate the effects of the pandemic is generally taken to be “not true.”
Stewart said that inaction today to address Americans’ concerns might lead to further disaster in the future. “There will be another emergency at some point, but how will Americans respond if we don’t rebuild trust in those federal agencies?” he said.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said after over a million American deaths and a slowdown of the world economy, “we deserve to know where COVID came from. And if for nothing else, we need to know to make sure that we avoid this in the future.”
He added that federal health officials need to be forthright if they were wrong. “Clearly, as a country and throughout the world, we weren’t ready for this,” he said in response to a question regarding America’s reaction to the pandemic. “It would be a huge mistake not to look back retrospectively and learn from our mistakes,” he said.
“If (federal health officials) did nothing wrong, they should welcome the review. If they were less honest or forthright with the American people, they will probably be defensive,” Curtis said.
School closures and ‘learning-loss’
Utah Reps. Blake Moore and Burgess Owens both said via email and text message that one of the most damaging pandemic effects was the “learning loss” in students across the country, caused in part by school closures and masking requirements.
Owens said the initial response to COVID-19 was “exaggerated,” and instead of “correcting their response, Democrats doubled down on their course of action and many schools were closed far beyond a reasonable time frame,” he said.
Owens accused “big government Democrats” and “progressive teachers’ unions” for disregarding the science and putting partisan interests over the needs of students.
Moore encouraged the subcommittee’s investigation on whether “requirements including masking and vaccines were repealed as soon as they could have been.” He said that masking “hindered children’s developmental progress.”
“The American people deserve transparency and evidence-based policy making from the federal government, and I hope we can learn from the failures of federal agencies during the pandemic to improve our response to future crises,” Moore said.
Should Congress reinstate a ban on gain-of-function research?
Redfield testified that fully understanding the origin of COVID-19 is critical to future science research, particularly as it affects an ongoing ethical debate around gain-of-function research.
“Gain-of-function research has long been controversial in the scientific community,” Redfield said. “In my own opinion, COVID presents a case study on the dangers of gain-of-function research. While many believe that gain-of-function research is critical to get ahead of viruses by developing vaccines, in this case I believe it was the exact opposite —unleashing a new virus to the world without any means of stopping it and resulting in the deaths of millions of people.”
Redfield called for a “moratorium” on gain-of-function research.
Stewart told the Deseret News he is likely to reintroduce legislation he sponsored last Congress that will ban gain-of-function research.
Who is to blame? Trump ... Fauci ... the Chinese government?
At the committee hearing, Dr. Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, accused the Chinese government of stonewalling efforts to find a definitive source of the virus. “The primary reason there has been no investigation is because of the reprehensible actions of the Chinese government,” he said. “Since the early days of the pandemic, China’s government has destroyed samples, hidden records, and imprisoned brave Chinese journalists.”
Zeng Yixin, the vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission refused to comply with a 2021 plan from the World Health Organization to investigate the allegation that “China’s breach of laboratory protocols caused the virus to leak.”
Metzl further said that although the Chinese have searched for animals in the Wuhan area that have the SARS-CoV-2 virus present in their bodies, they have failed to produce any specimens.
Wenstrup opened the hearing by saying he was concerned an origins investigation hadn’t been started by Congress years ago. He also listed the ways he believes federal health officials discouraged an investigation into the lab leak theory, by saying they wanted to “protect international harmony” and by labeling it a “conspiracy theory.”
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said he laid much of the blame at former President Donald Trump’s feet. “That president’s policy failures and magical thinking and total recklessness caused, according to his own special adviser on COVID-19, Dr. Deborah Birx, the unnecessary death of hundreds of thousands of Americans,” he said.
Stewart said Trump was not to blame when asked by the Deseret News. He referenced Trump’s early decision to shut down travel to and from China even though it was criticized at the time.