- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Prominent infectious disease experts said on Wednesday that the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic most likely emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — a theory U.S. government scientists discredited early in the crisis.

Dr. Robert Redfield, who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Trump, pointed to the virus’ unusual features, including its rapid transmission from human to human and swift evolution, plus “unusual actions” to downplay the virus in and around Wuhan in the fall of 2019.

His review of available data “indicates that COVID-19 more likely was the result of an accidental lab leak than the result of a natural spillover event. This conclusion is based primarily on the biology of the virus itself,” Dr. Redfield told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Nicholas Wade, a former science editor at The New York Times, said virus researchers in Wuhan — the Chinese city where the pandemic began — and their U.S. intermediary wanted to engineer a furin cleavage site in coronaviruses to see whether they could make it easier to infect mice, but the Department of Defense denied funding.

Mr. Wade said they might have proceeded with that work anyway.

“The DOD turned the proposal down as too risky, but the researchers may well have found other ways to finance it. And they may have done much of the groundwork experimentation before applying for the grant, as is common practice,” he testified. “A year later, the [coronavirus] appears on the scene, and guess what: It possesses a furin cleavage site, the only known member of its large family of viruses to do so.”

SEE ALSO: Fauci to loom large over House Oversight’s COVID-19 origins hearing

Dr. Redfield said the cleavage site made it easier for the virus to attach itself to human receptors, and it bothered him.

Other scientists have published papers saying there is no evidence that lab workers engineered the cleavage site in the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has insisted to Congress that the virus that caused the pandemic was not related to the viruses that its U.S. grantee, EcoHealth, studied in Wuhan.

The House Republican majority says its select subcommittee will try to figure out whether the virus was the result of a spillover from nature or a lab leak. It says a serious investigation of the matter is long overdue.

Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican, said the question is fundamental to helping the U.S. prevent other pandemics and protect its national security.

The outbreak was initially blamed on a viral transmission from a wet market in Wuhan. The virus was first detected in 2019 in the city before spreading around the globe in early 2020. COVID-19 has killed nearly 7 million people, including more than 1.1 million in the U.S.

SEE ALSO: Majority of Americans believe COVID-19 came from Chinese lab: Poll

The lab leak theory, which the political left 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 a flulike illness that spread across the city.

Mr. Wenstrup said the unprecedented nature of the virus and its features support the lab theory.

“COVID-19 has unique characteristics that made it very infectious to humans,” Mr. Wenstrup said. “These have never been seen before in any other viruses of its type.”

Questions about the coronavirus’ origins have split the U.S. government.

The Department of Energy recently concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic most likely resulted from a laboratory leak in China. It based its conclusion on new intelligence, further review of academic literature and consultations with experts outside the government.

Yet it reached the conclusion with “low confidence,” meaning a level of uncertainty about the origins remained.

Multiple agencies have been trying to pinpoint the source of the virus for years.

The FBI concluded with moderate confidence that a lab leak was responsible for the virus’ spread. Intelligence agencies have determined with low confidence that the virus emerged from natural channels, according to a review that President Biden ordered in 2021.

Republican lawmakers are pushing for the declassification of information that agencies have used.

Findings by the FBI and the Energy Department appear to have swayed the public.

A Tipp Insights poll taken this month, in the wake of those assessments, found that 52% of Americans support the lab leak theory. That was up from 44% in May 2021 and 47% in late 2021 and early 2022.

Republicans were likelier than Democrats to support the lab theory.

Of those who buy the lab theory, more than half believe the virus was released on purpose, Tipp Insights found. An additional 31% believe the virus leaked accidentally.

Lawmakers in both parties said Wednesday that they want to reach a firm conclusion, though they couldn’t avoid partisan sniping.

Dr. Fauci, who served as the main face of the COVID-19 response, was not at the hearing, but his name was mentioned more than once.

Documents obtained by the subcommittee show that Dr. Fauci “prompted” a paper in February 2020 dismissing the theory that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Days earlier, Dr. Fauci and other public health officials were warned that the virus could have been genetically manipulated before emerging from the lab.

Republican investigators said the paper, titled the “Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” purportedly “skewed available evidence” to show that China was not responsible. Dr. Fauci repeatedly cited the paper to reporters and the public throughout 2020 to cast doubt on the lab leak theory.

Dr. Redfield told the subcommittee that government scientists attached themselves to the natural spillover theory early on and wanted to box out people like him who believed a lab leak had credence.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, Maryland Democrat, noted Mr. Trump’s praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts in early 2020 and insistence that the virus would go away on its own.

“Donald Trump was the biggest apologist in the United States of America for President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Raskin said. “He could have directed the intelligence community to lead a COVID-19 origins investigation back in March of 2020, three years ago. He did not. He wasted precious time minimizing the risk of the virus and lavishing his praise on President Xi.”

Despite partisan bickering, the Chinese government was the top target for witnesses and lawmakers at the hearing.

Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said stonewalling from Beijing is the main impediment to getting to the bottom of the virus’ origin, though he said the U.S. should establish a bipartisan commission to examine the pandemic.

“I happened to be a Democrat, which is irrelevant to our work together,” Mr. Metzl said. “There is no smoking gun proving a laboratory origin hypothesis, but the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a gun that is at very least warm to the touch.”

Mr. Metzl pointed to the importance of geography and Wuhan as the source of the outbreak.

“I knew that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is based there,” he said.

Dr. Redfield said the coronaviruses that caused outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) infected humans through intermediary animals but then died out.

The coronavirus that caused COVID-19 appeared to be the most infectious virus in humans since measles, he said.

“I immediately said, ‘Wait a second; this isn’t natural,’” Dr. Redfield said.

Mr. Wade said the Chinese government wants evidence of natural origins but has been unable to find it.

“The natural origin camp got its story out first, always a very big help,” he said.

He also highlighted the Chinese government’s efforts to thwart the World Health Organization and other investigators looking for insight into activities at the Wuhan lab.

“Innocent behavior would be to throw open the Wuhan Institute and all its viral samples, working papers and databases to anyone who wanted to look. The Chinese authorities have done the opposite,” Mr. Wade said.

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told senators on Wednesday that greater Chinese cooperation is key to understanding the virus’ origins.

“What would change perspectives would be additional information,” she said. “And we’ve been trying to collect additional information. I think you’re absolutely right that China has not fully cooperated. And we do think that’s a key critical gap that would help us to understand what exactly happened.”

The House subcommittee took aim at gain-of-function research that can make viruses more dangerous in efforts to understand them and help prevent pandemics.

Dr. Redfield said the risks outweigh the benefits and called for a moratorium on that kind of research. He said it never stopped a pandemic.

“On the contrary, I think it probably caused the greatest pandemic our world has ever seen,” Dr. Redfield said.

Republican committee leaders said they will hold more hearings on COVID-19 origins and will compel information from the National Institutes of Health and its grantee EcoHealth.

“We aren’t finished,” Mr. Wenstrup said. “We’re just beginning.”

Haris Alic and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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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