- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2023

A Republican bill to declassify all evidence that links a Chinese lab to the origins of the novel coronavirus breezed through Congress without a peep of dissent from Democrats, a stunning show of bipartisanship and a major step forward in the long-delayed quest to understand how the pandemic started.

The legislation by Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, would force Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to declassify information and report to Congress within 90 days about possible ties between the virus and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The bill got through the Senate by unanimous consent this month before it cruised through the House by a 419-0 vote on Friday.

President Biden hasn’t said whether he will sign the bill, but he hasn’t issued a veto threat.

Mr. Hawley is taunting Chinese President Xi Jinping over renewed U.S. scrutiny of a virus that has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide.

“Time is up. Come clean about your role in spreading COVID to the world,” Mr. Hawley said in a letter to Mr. Xi, which was sent to Beijing via the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Suddenly, there is broad momentum in Congress behind efforts to get to the bottom of how the pandemic started — namely, whether it spilled over from nature through an animal species or slipped out of a lab after risky experiments. Some lawmakers also want to hold Beijing accountable for its role in downplaying COVID-19 early on and failing to cooperate with global investigators.

Rep. Christopher Smith, New Jersey Republican, and Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas Republican, filed a bill last week that would allow Americans to sue the Chinese Communist Party. The legislation is modeled on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allowed relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to seek redress from Saudi Arabia.

“Knowing that 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.

COVID-19 was initially blamed on a wet market in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected in 2019 before spreading around the globe in early 2020.

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

Rep. Michael Turner, Ohio Republican, said Americans deserve answers after the virus killed more than 1 million people in the U.S., caused lingering symptoms in some known as “long COVID” and prompted schools to lock children out of classrooms for extended periods.

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

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

“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.”

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. Democrats accused Republicans of impugning the doctor.

The Department of Energy has shifted its position and concluded with “low confidence” that the COVID-19 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. Other U.S. intelligence agencies have determined with low confidence that the virus emerged from natural channels, according to a review that Mr. Biden ordered in 2021.

The White House was coy about whether Mr. Biden would sign the bill, even though it won unanimous support from Congress.

“We will continue to use every tool to find out what happened here while also protecting classified information,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday. “We’re going to take a look at the bill. I just don’t have any information to share at this time.”

Witnesses told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic last week that the coronavirus has features rarely found in nature, leading them to believe the virus was manipulated in the lab. Other scientists have issued papers saying it is unlikely that the virus was engineered, leaving lawmakers flummoxed and hoping for more insight from the intelligence community.

House Republican leaders said they would continue to dig into the matter and promised that the hearing was just the first of many.

In the meantime, lawmakers say, the public should be able to get a glimpse of 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.

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

Mr. Hawley’s letter to Mr. Xi taunted the communist government for its attempts to kill the origins legislation as it wended through Congress.

“I know you are keenly interested in this bill — your own Communist officials have written to my office demanding we renounce it, in their usual lecturing, idiotic style,” Mr. Hawley wrote in his letter to Mr. Xi. “But the bill will soon be law — unless you can convince President Biden to veto it.”

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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