- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2023

The House on Friday approved a bill requiring the nation’s intelligence chief to declassify any evidence of a link between a major lab in China and the origins of the coronavirus that sparked the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019.

The measure, which passed on a unanimous 419-0 vote, calls on Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to declassify and report to Congress within 90 days on possible ties between the virus and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, passed the Senate by unanimous consent this month and will head to President Biden, who hasn’t said whether he will sign it but did not issue a veto threat.       

Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican, said Americans deserve answers after the virus killed over 1 million people in the U.S., caused lingering symptoms known as “long COVID” in others and knocked school children out of the classroom for an extended period.

“The intelligence community does have more information about COVID than the public is led to believe,” he said.

Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut Democrat, supported the bill but warned lawmakers and Americans not to cherry-pick the evidence it wants.

“We need to think about whether we want confirmation bias, our tendency to select just those facts that support our preexisting positions,” he said. “No matter what’s declassified, it won’t be dispositive about the origins of the coronavirus. So this is a really important first step.”

China’s Communist regime has sharply denied the Wuhan lab was responsible for the virus and criticized U.S. and global efforts demanding more information on COVID-19’s origins. Beijing has also floated widely-discredited counter-theories that the U.S. military or other sources were responsible for the deadly virus.

There is growing momentum on Capitol Hill behind getting to the bottom of how the pandemic started — namely, whether it spilled over from nature through an animal species or if it slipped out of a lab after risky experiments. Some lawmakers also want to hold Beijing accountable for its role in downplaying the virus early on and failing to cooperate with global investigators.

Reps. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, and Michael Burgess, Texas Republican, filed a bill this week that would allow Americans to sue the Chinese Communist Party. The legislation is modeled on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorist Act (JASTA) legislation bill that allowed the relatives of the victims on Sept. 11, 2001, to seek redress from Saudi Arabia over the terror attacks.

“Knowing that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and his Communist regime systematically failed to be truthful and transparent, our legislation seeks to not only gain access to more information but also provide much-needed relief to the loved ones of those who died and others who have suffered severe economic loss during the pandemic,” Mr. Smith said.

The virus was initially blamed on a wet market in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected in 2019 before spreading around the globe in early 2020.

The lab-leak theory, which was initially discredited as disinformation by the political left, gained credence late in the Trump administration and was bolstered by evidence that some workers at the Wuhan lab were hospitalized for flu-like illness before the virus exploded across the city.

Floor debate devolved at times into partisan finger-pointing over the role of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key face of the pandemic response. Republicans criticized Dr. Fauci for supporting the natural-evolution theory early on, prompting Democrats to accuse the GOP of impugning the doctor.

The Department of Energy recently shifted its position, saying it now concluded with “low confidence” that the coronavirus pandemic most likely resulted from a laboratory leak in China.

Earlier, the FBI concluded with moderate confidence that a lab leak was responsible for the virus’ spread, while other U.S. intelligence agencies have determined with low confidence the virus emerged from natural channels, according to a review that Mr. Biden ordered in 2021.

Witnesses told Capitol Hill the virus has features that rarely occur in known coronaviruses in nature, leading them to believe the virus was manipulated in the lab. Other scientists have issued papers saying it is unlikely the virus was engineered, leaving lawmakers flummoxed and hoping for more insight from the intelligence community.

Lawmakers say the public should be able to get a glimpse at the evidence that agencies used to arrive at their conclusions, including details about coronavirus work at the Wuhan lab; any cooperation between lab workers and the Chinese military; and details on lab workers who got sick around the time of the first outbreak.

The Hawley bill says the director of national intelligence can make redactions but only to protect intelligence-gathering sources and methods.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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