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Senate Stumped Over COVID Origins: What We Know. And Don’t Know

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Flash forward to June 2021. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green (R-Tenn.) hadn’t yet picked up the gavel. But he had questions about COVID-19 as it gripped the world.

“For most of the pandemic, anyone who raised questions about the origins of the virus was dismissed as a crazy conspiracy theorist,” Greene said on the House floor.

In 2021, many were reluctant to even venture into the idea that COVID-19 could have originated from a Chinese laboratory.

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Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) is a physician and the top Democrat on the House committee investigating the origins of the pandemic. Some Republicans have floated the lab leak theory, but Ruiz is careful to point out that this theory is far from proven. The Department of Energy and the FBI have suggested a lab leak was to blame, but most U.S. intelligence agencies suspected the virus originated naturally.

“They’re not saying with a high degree of certainty that this was a lab leak,” Lewis said at a hearing in July 2023. “But I’ve heard that from the other side, that they’re saying that, and that’s a lie.”

Like Greene, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis of New York also argued in 2023 that Democrats had “denounced as conspiracy theorists anyone who believes there was a lab leak.”

But the idea that a lab leak may have started the pandemic is no longer circulating.

Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is sworn in before testifying before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s Select Subcommittee on COVID-19, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, June 3, 2024. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The House COVID Committee unearthed messages from last year from Dr. David Morens, a colleague of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was the public face of the pandemic response and had just retired as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

“Tony doesn’t want his fingerprints on the origin story,” Morens writes.

Appearing on FOX in January 2023, Fauci declared, “The evidence very strongly suggests that this is a natural transition from animal species to humans.”

But Fauci may have softened that view.

“I’ve also said very clearly and repeatedly that I don’t think the idea that there was a (lab) leak is inherently a conspiracy theory,” Fauci told the House coronavirus committee this month. “The conspiracy is a distortion that there was a lab leak and I parachuted in like Jason Bourne to the CIA and told them they shouldn’t have told them about the lab leak.”

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In 2020, Fauci cited an article in the British scientific journal Nature when talking about the origins of the pandemic. The House COVID committee is reviewing communications between Fauci and the paper’s authors shortly before the article went to press. Some Republicans have accused Fauci of using the article to deflect criticism about a possible lab leak.

The Senate investigated the origins of the pandemic this week in a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Today we are here to consider one of the most important and contentious issues of our time,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has long questioned the government’s statements about the origins of the pandemic.

“Like the Hunter Biden laptop story, experts have said this is disinformation,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said, blasting the supposed lab leak.

Dr. Robert Ghaly, dean of the Tulane University School of Medicine, co-authored the 2020 Nature paper, which argued that a lab leak couldn’t have triggered a pandemic.

Dr. David Mortens

Dr. David Morens testified before Congress about emails that were made public between Dr. Morens and representatives of NGOs that received federal funding for COVID-19 research in Wuhan, China. (House Oversight Committee)

“So you’re saying this idea came up overnight?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri).

“We have new data,” Gally replied.

“Like a revelation? Overnight? Like, ‘Okay, now I can definitely disprove it. Great!'” Hawley countered.

“That’s just the scientific method,” Garry replied.

Ghaly believes the pandemic began naturally, but acknowledges that some of the science has evolved.

That is why Republican senators have leaned toward the zoonotic origins of the pandemic and criticized Ghaly for his article.

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“This is scientific misconduct and fraud,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., charged. “The reason the American people rightly distrust scientists and health agencies is because people like you are responsible for betraying the public trust with scientific misconduct and fraud.”

“It’s not a fraud,” Gary countered. “We didn’t put anything in that paper that we didn’t believe to be true. The conclusions of that paper hold up very well. In fact, since then, a ton of scientific evidence has been produced to support every single conclusion, everything that we put in that paper. So there is no fraud.”

But other scientists also criticized Gary.

“This is the most egregious form of scientific misconduct – publishing a paper knowing that its conclusions are not true,” argued Dr Richard Ebright of Rutgers University.

Still, questions remain about what happened in Wuhan, China, the site of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and close to the city’s wet market, which has been identified as the geographic epicenter of the pandemic.

“It’s a single animal-to-human transmission, and the most likely place it would happen is in a lab,” says Steven Quay, a former Stanford professor and founder of Atossa Therapeutics. “The Wuhan Institute of Virology is where I’m focused.”

Corona China

A worker takes swab samples for COVID-19 tests at a mobile testing site in Beijing, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

But when it comes to providing data on the pandemic to Western investigators, China appears untouchable.

“The Chinese government may never disclose all the information it has about the early COVID-19 outbreak,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which convened the hearing.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, has advocated for establishing a 9/11-style commission to investigate the origins of COVID-19. Marshall has also raised the possibility of classifying COVID-19 as a biological weapon, a move the Kansas Republican put in the context of national security.

“How did the United States contribute (to this) and how can we prevent this from happening again?” Marshall asked.

Some senators acknowledged that the onset of COVID-19 remains a thorn in many people’s minds.

“It could be something like 98 percent, but it’s always a little bit uncertain,” said Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

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And like so much of the pandemic, that uncertainty seems to be the only thing we know for sure.

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