The US House of Representatives held the first in a series of public hearings on 8 March aimed at exploring how the COVID-19 pandemic began. Members of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic acknowledged that the question of where the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus originated has become highly politicized. But they said that both hypotheses describing its emergence — one, that it spread naturally from animals to people; the other, that it leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — must be explored. “This question is fundamental to helping us predict and prevent future pandemics, protecting our health and national security and preparing the United States for the future,” said committee chair Brad Wenstrup, Republican representative for Ohio, in his opening statement.
The hearing itself, however, offered a heavy dose of political theatre, giving a preview of sessions to follow in the weeks and months to come. Republicans now control the House, so they led the hearing and invited three of the witnesses: Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank based in Washington DC; Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, Georgia; and Nicholas Wade, a former science editor for the New York Times. All three have supported the lab-leak hypothesis. The Democrats invited one witness, Paul Auwaerter, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.
One of the focal points for Republican committee members was the idea that Anthony Fauci, former director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, had steered the scientific community to dismiss a lab leak early in the pandemic. Ahead of the hearing, they released a memorandum suggesting that Fauci “prompted” a group of virologists in March 2020 to publish a Correspondence article in Nature Medicine concluding that a lab-leak scenario was not plausible.
Fauci was not at the hearing to offer his perspective, but in a statement he responded to the memorandum, denying the accusations. He said that his only goal was to encourage the virologists to evaluate the origins of SARS-CoV-2. “I have stated repeatedly that we must keep an open mind as to the origins of the virus.”
Democrats, meanwhile, focused much of their energy on Wade. They questioned whether he was a credible witness, given that he has authored a much-criticized book — that has been hailed by white supremacists — discussing the biological basis of race. Wenstrup defended the journalist’s inclusion as a witness, saying that Wade had once worked at Nature, and that the hearing would be discussing a Correspondence article published in the journal. (Nature and Nature Medicine have the same publisher, but they are separate entities and operate as such; Nature’s news team, in which Wade worked during the late 1960s and early 1970s, is also independent of its journal team.)
Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who has studied genetic evidence from the early days of the pandemic, told Nature that he found the proceedings “shockingly unscientific” and that they do not bode well for the overall investigation. “Not one of those witnesses had any scientific record of investigating and publishing peer-reviewed research on the origins of this virus in quality journals,” he said.
Change of heart
Republicans’ desire for answers was heightened last week after The Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Energy (DOE) had given a classified intelligence report to the White House in which it updated its stance on COVID-19’s origins. The department, undecided previously, now says with “low confidence” that the pandemic probably got its start from a lab leak in China; however, the evidence behind this change is unclear. Soon afterwards, FBI director Christopher Wray told Fox News that his agency has for some time thought that SARS-CoV-2 escaped accidentally from a lab in China, but he did not reveal any evidence informing the agency’s views.
Meanwhile, the National Intelligence Council and four other agencies support the idea that the pandemic had a natural origin, also with “low confidence”, and two agencies are undecided. In August 2021, all of the agencies, including the DOE and the FBI, concluded that SARS-CoV-2 is not a bioweapon — engineered and released from a lab purposefully.
For David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California, these recent announcements by the intelligence community support the idea that both hypotheses for COVID-19’s origins should receive serious attention, and that there is no definitive evidence to support either at the moment. “In particular, the laboratory idea is a plausible idea that hasn’t been properly addressed,” he says.
Speaking at the hearing, Redfield said he thinks answers about COVID-19’s origins will not come from the scientific community: “I think that answer is going to come from the intelligence community.”
Asked about the DOE’s assessment, Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on 27 February: “Certain parties should stop rehashing the ‘lab leak’ narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing.” She also reiterated a message that has come from the Chinese government during the pandemic: “China has always supported and participated in global science-based origins-tracing.”
A community divided
Scientists have for some time been divided over the provenance of SARS-CoV-2. Early in the pandemic, in February 2020, some researchers published a Correspondence article in The Lancet condemning “conspiracy theories” suggesting that the coronavirus had leaked from a laboratory in China. More than a year later, however, others, including Relman, published a letter in Science arguing that the lab-leak theory should be given fair examination. This group argued, in particular, that an origins investigation organized in early 2021 by the World Health Organization (WHO), and that included Chinese researchers, had hastily — and without all the necessary evidence — concluded that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”.
Early last year, Worobey and other researchers reported genetic and other evidence that a massive market in Wuhan, China, where live animals were sold was probably the source of the COVID-19 outbreak. The scientists concluded that these animals might have harboured SARS-CoV-2 and passed it to humans who were working at the market, or visiting it.
At the same time, lab-leak proponents have questioned funding granted by the NIAID to the non-profit organization EcoHealth Alliance, in New York City. EcoHealth had partnered with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to study coronaviruses, and some have claimed that researchers at the institute used NIAID funding to conduct ‘gain of function’ studies on these viruses. Specifically, critics have suggested that WIV scientists manipulated coronaviruses to infect human cells, at a time when gain-of-function studies were barred in the United States.
This, committee members and witnesses implied at the 8 March meeting, is a reason why Fauci, who directed the NIAID until last December, had wanted to suppress the lab-leak theory early in the pandemic. Fauci has denied that the research funded by the NIAID could be categorized as gain of function.
Metzl criticized the focus on Fauci during the hearing. “China must be the primary focus,” he said. “If we make it primarily about Dr Fauci, we will be inappropriately serving the Chinese government a propaganda coup on a silver platter.”
Some researchers have complained that China has been slow to release data that it has collected regarding the early days of the pandemic. In 2021, Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission, rejected a plan by the WHO to further investigate the possibility that “China’s breach of laboratory protocols caused the virus to leak”.
The 8 March hearing has made it clear that the political debate isn’t going away, however. “I’m very much concerned that people are allowing themselves to be guided by their emotions, intuition and historical precedence,” says Relman. For Worobey, it was disappointing that the witnesses and committee members didn’t engage with the scientific evidence, which, he says, clearly points to a natural origin.
The committee has yet to schedule its next hearing.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on March 9, 2023.