GOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory

WASHINGTON (thehill): A House Republican lawmaker’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19 is raising concerns that the pandemic outbreak stemmed from a genetically modified virus that leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the Chinese city where the virus was first detected in December 2019.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released on Monday a third installment in his investigation into the origins of the virus and the missteps by China in alerting the world to the risks of the pandemic.

The GOP investigation parallels efforts by the Biden administration and the international community to determine the origins of the pandemic outbreak, which has killed more than 4.2 million people across the world, infected nearly 200 million and upended global stability.

Public health advocates who support efforts to determine the origin of the virus say such an investigation is essential in taking steps to reduce the risk of another pandemic taking place.

But national security experts also raised the concern that the U.S. must discipline China for failing to quickly and cooperatively alert the international community to the virus outbreak and its ongoing obstruction into the investigation into the origins of COVID-19. 

“The Biden administration has already — working through the WHO and with the G-7 and with other countries — used diplomacy and tried to urge the Chinese to cooperate. They’ve given us their answer, their answer is no,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

“What’s next? The Biden administration has not articulated how they’re going to compel China to cooperate, and then if they don’t cooperate what they’re going to do about that. Further, they haven’t really explained how this issue fits in the larger U.S.-China relationship,” Ruggiero added.

McCaul, in statements alongside the release of the report, is calling for Congress to pass legislation sanctioning scientists at the Wuhan lab and Chinese Communist Party officials who were determined to have obstructed efforts to respond to the pandemic quickly and effectively. 

McCaul also calls on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to subpoena Peter Daszak, an American scientist who has come under scrutiny for his connection with the Wuhan lab and involvement in publishing an open letter in February 2020 that rejected the lab theory as a xenophobic distraction from the pandemic response.

The letter, which was published in the Lancet medical journal, has since come under criticism as an attempt to divert attention from China’s responsibility for the virus outbreak.

“Now is the time to use all of the tools the U.S. government has to continue to root out the full truth of how this virus came to be,” McCaul said.

“That includes subpoenaing Peter Daszak to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to answer the many questions his inconsistent — and in some instances outright and knowingly inaccurate — statements have raised. It also includes Congress passing legislation to sanction scientists at the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] and CCP [Chinese Communist Party] officials who participated in this coverup. This was the greatest coverup of all time and has caused the deaths of more than four million people around the world, and people must be held responsible.”

The Republican report doubles down on the idea that the virus likely emerged from the Wuhan laboratory, a theory that has gained increasing legitimacy despite having not gained much traction in the early days of the pandemic.

The so-called lab leak theory is the idea that the virus emerged from the Wuhan scientific lab either due to a series of missteps and lax safety procedures or Chinese government and military tampering.

The Chinese government and Wuhan lab scientists have dismissed these allegations and maintain that the first cases likely emerged from animal-to-human transmission at a wet market in the city of Wuhan.

“As we continue to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe it’s time to completely dismiss the wet market as the source of the outbreak. Instead, as this report lays out, a preponderance of the evidence proves that all roads lead to the WIV,” McCaul said in a statement.

The Republican report, which is based on open source material and draws conclusions from circumstantial reporting, also raises concern that the lab was conducting “gain of function” research, controversial medical research where scientists genetically modify a bacteria or virus to make it more infectious in an effort to study better preventative measures, in an unsafe environment.

“We know gain-of-function research was happening at the WIV and we know it was being done in unsafe conditions,” McCaul said.

Leaked State Department cables from 2018 documented that American diplomats raised concern about safety and management procedures at the Wuhan lab that did not raise to the level of need for the lab’s status as a BSL-4, the highest level of international bioresearch safety. The cables were first reported by The Washington Post in April 2020.

The Republican report adds to this by raising concern over maintenance and renovation taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the adjacent lab, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, related to its hazardous waste treatment system and air conditioning systems while carrying out research on coronaviruses. Such instances were taking place in the months preceding the first known cases of COVID-19, the report states.

The investigators also offer an alternative timeline of the virus outbreak, suggesting the first cases occurred in August or September of 2019, and not mid-November, as other reporting has suggested.

The Republican report also raises concern that scientists at the Wuhan lab, including American researchers, had the ability to modify genetically altered viruses without leaving any trace that they had been tampered with.

“An American scientist, Dr. Ralph Baric, assisted in creating a method to leave no trace of genetic modification as early as 2005,” the report states. “And as early as 2017, scientists working at the WIV were able to do the same. This makes it clear that claims by the scientific community that SARS-CoV-2 could not be man-made because it has no genetic modification markers are disingenuous.”

They cite, among other things, a 2020 interview Baric gave to an Italian television station, during which he says, “You can engineer a virus without leaving any trace. The answers you are looking for, however, can only be found in the archives of the Wuhan laboratory.”

The authors of the report do not claim to have a smoking gun to definitively prove their claims, but raise the larger imperative of crafting a legislative response to pandemic preparedness and imposing cost on China for the outbreak of the virus.

While scientists and intelligence officials have increasingly coalesced around the theory that the pandemic outbreak’s likely epicenter was the Wuhan lab — in addition to the theory that the chain of the virus stemmed from human contact with an infected animal — they have downplayed the suggestion that the virus was genetically modified.

President Biden has set a September deadline for the intelligence community to report to him more definitive conclusions surrounding the two theories, although his top intelligence officials have warned that such a determination is unlikely absent Chinese cooperation. 

“[The reality is] that the Chinese government has not been transparent, has not fully cooperated in the WHO’s investigation initially, and it’s more recently suggested it’s going to refuse to cooperate in a follow-up as well. And that is deeply unfortunate,” CIA Director William Burns said in an interview with NPR last week.