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Two coauthors of the March 2020 Nature Medicine paper that asserted, just months into the pandemic, that COVID-19’s origins were “clearly” natural rather than lab-made faced questioning Tuesday during a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.
The hearing investigated “whether government officials, regardless of who they are, unfairly and perhaps biasedly tipped the scales toward a preferred origin theory,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), committee chair, said in opening remarks.
“We are examining whether scientific integrity was disregarded in favor of political expediency, maybe to conceal or diminish the government’s relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology or perhaps its funding of risky gain-of-function coronavirus research,” he said.
Tulane virologist Robert Garry, Ph.D., and Scripps Research evolutionary biologist Kristian Andersen, Ph.D., denied the allegations in written testimony submitted prior to the hearing as “absurd and false.” And in more than three hours of questioning Tuesday by committee members, they insisted their conclusions in the paper were based solely on the “scientific process.”
Republicans’ questioning focused on demonstrating the Nature Medicine paper was coordinated and unduly influenced by government officials.
Lawmakers laid out evidence that all of the authors initially expressed serious concerns the virus may have leaked from a lab and of how that position changed just a few days later after a Feb. 1, 2020, teleconference with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Francis Collins and Jeremy Farrar, Ph.D.
The scientists drafted their paper “The Proximal Origins of SARS-CoV-2” within a few days of the call and published it the following month. The early drafts were shared with Farrar, Collins and Fauci, Paul Thacker reported.
Prior to yesterday’ hearing, the panel’s Republican majority issued a report, “The Proximal Origin of a Cover-up,” asserting a coordinated effort by Fauci and others to downplay the lab-leak hypothesis and suppress scientific discourse.
The report was based on 25 hours of testimony by the authors of the Proximal Origins paper and a review of 8,000 pages of documents, including subpoenaed emails and slack messages that had not yet been revealed publicly.
The evidence showed that in conversations with one another, the Proximal Origin authors expressed a lack of certainty about their singular conclusion but feared the political fallout of giving credence to the lab origin hypothesis.
Democrats vehemently countered the Republican assertions, insisting Fauci and Collins had no role in the findings. They produced their own report — “They Played No Role” — drawing on the same evidence to conclude that “that there was no cover-up of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and no suppression of the lab leak theory on the parts of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins.”
In the highly partisan hearing, the Democrats used their time to accuse Republicans of having a “vendetta,” of “weaponizing” the origin discussion, using “extreme rhetoric” and of making “baseless allegations” that they claimed were responsible for the public’s loss of faith in public institutions.
Ranking Democrat Dr. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) repeatedly accused the Republicans of “confirmation bias” in their assertion that the lab leak is the more probable origin of the virus and of making “conspiratorial accusations without proof,” rather than “pursuing an objective analysis of the virus’s origins that is free from political interference.”
The ‘Proximal Origins’ fallout
The paper in question, “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2” played a key early role in shutting down debate about the origin of the virus.
Top public health officials used the paper as “independent science” to influence public discussion of the topic. Collins, then director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted the findings on the agency website. And in an April 17, 2020, press briefing at the White House, when asked whether COVID-19 had come from the Wuhan lab, Fauci cited the paper’s conclusions as definitive.
But communications obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by U.S. Right to Know, and a memo released in March by the congressional subcommittee have since showed that Collins, Fauci and Farrar of the Wellcome Trust played a key, previously undisclosed role in persuading the scientists to write the paper.
The FOIA requests also revealed that all of the paper’s authors had privately expressed suspicions that the virus was engineered or about the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s store of novel coronaviruses and work on them at low biosafety levels, US Right to Know reported.
‘Proximal origin of a cover-up’ vs. ‘they played no role’
Republicans questioned the scientists on their rapid shift from thinking that the virus was likely lab-made to their certainty, professed in both drafts and final versions of the paper, about its natural origins in a matter of days.
Representative Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) quoted a communication from Garry where he said:
“I really can’t think of a plausible natural scenario where you get from, from the bat virus or one very similar to it to, uh, COVID-19 where you insert exactly four amino acids, 12 nucleotides and all have to be added at the exact same time to gain this function.
“I just can’t figure out how this all gets accomplished in nature.”
She said, “So then within a matter of days, something changed, and that’s what this committee is trying to get to the bottom of, what happened within that three day period between the conference call and the paper that all of a sudden you did a 180.”
In response to repeated questioning on this topic, Andersen and Garry insisted their change in thinking was based on “the scientific process.”
They said new evidence emerged that changed their thinking, that their shift in thinning “evolved over time from early hypotheses to later conclusions published in the paper.” And that their shift had nothing to do with pressure from Fauci, Collins or Farrar.
Rather, Andersen said their paper presented “an agnostic view of what the evidence actually does tell us.”
Garry testified that Collins and Fauci had very little input at the Feb. 1 teleconference and he thought they were just on the call “to gather information” from the experts.
Andersen and Garry along with several of the Democratic committee members repeatedly emphasized that Farrar — not Fauci or Collins — coordinated the call and provided the authors with significant guidance on the paper. Andersen said, “I describe him as a father figure” for the paper, Andersen said, “because I think that captures it.”
Ruiz and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) both suggested Farrar’s role in organizing the call exonerated Fauci and Collins, effectively disproving the idea that there was political interference in the findings.
But, Farrar — former director of the Wellcome Trust and currently chief scientist at the World Health Organization — has been a central figure in dismissing the lab leak theory as a “conspiracy theory,” Sam Husseini reported.
In February 2020, along with Peter Daszak and 25 other scientists signed a letter in The Lancet that dismissed the possibility of a lab origin of COVID-19.
“We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the letter said.
Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) questioned whether this continued certainty about natural origins today made sense given that it contradicted the testimony by former director of the National Intelligence Agency, John Ratcliffe.
Ratcliffe told the committee that, “If our intelligence and evidence supporting a lab leak theory was placed side by side with our intelligence and evidence pointing to a naturally occurring spillover theory, the lab leak side of the ledger would be long and overwhelming while the spillover side would be nearly empty, nearly empty.”
Ruiz claimed that most government agencies — four of them — deny the lab leak theory with low confidence. But the FBI and the Department of Energy have also determined with moderate confidence that the virus most likely originated in a lab.
Democratic members alleged the Republicans’ effort to investigate the politicization of the investigation of the origins of the pandemic inhibited the work of preparing for “the next pandemic.”
Ruiz said the Republicans’ actions had also led to “threats against scientists and public health officials.” Anderson agreed, saying “the misinformation, dis and conspiracy theories around the paper have resulted in significant harassment and threats” similar to those undergone by Peter Hotez, and alleged that he is on a “kill list.”
Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii) said that such investigations “are actually creating a very chilling effect on the scientific process,” which hinders the ability of scientists and public health officials to thoroughly investigate and study future disease outbreaks.
She suggested that in the future the researchers should “double think what they put on their slack messages and channels and their emails and their text threads.”
But just last week the House subcommittee began investigating Dr. David M. Morens, a 25-year veteran of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), after it was revealed he used his personal email address to evade FOIA requests for communications related to the origins of COVID-19, The Defender reported.
Wenstrom broke the news in the meeting that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was also involved in the investigation.
Near the end of the hearing, both Garry and Andersen confirmed that they had been consulted by the CIA and FBI about the origins of COVID-19.
Wenstrup concluded by saying,“We’re exploring a potential coverup. That is what we are doing.”
He added, “You receive federal dollars, we appropriate those. Congress appropriates those federal dollars. We have a responsibility of oversight on behalf of our constituents and the very taxpayers that pay you. Sorry about that. But it’s our job whether you like it or not. And I take it seriously.”
Watch the hearing: