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As House explores Covid-19 lab leak theory, Dems advise caution

Republican lawmakers grilled intelligence experts on reports that the pandemic could have originated in a research lab in China.

WASHINGTON (CN) — For some House Republicans investigating the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has nearly become a forgone conclusion that the novel virus sprang from an infectious disease laboratory.

“While the specific origin of Covid-19 may not be 100% clear, there’s mounting evidence suggesting a research- or lab-related leak,” Ohio Congressman Brad Wenstrup said during a hearing Monday in a specialized panel on House Committee on Oversight aimed at investigating such claims.

“Starting in early 2020, there were rumblings about the possibility that Covid-19 came from a lab,” said Wenstrup, a Republican who chairs the subcommittee. “Ever since then, more and more circumstantial evidence has come to light suggesting that this is the case.”

The U.S. intelligence community has yet to give a firm assessment about whether Covid-19 leaked from a lab — specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China — or if it jumped from an animal source to humans at a wet market in the same region. In recent months, however, several federal agencies including the FBI and the Department of Energy have released reports that rank a lab leak as one possible origin of the virus.

Despite that discord, some of the former intelligence officials invited to testify Monday by the Republican-led committee were adamant that the lab-leak theory is viable. They said the evidence supporting this hypothesis faces resistance from some within the government have worked to downplay any.

“My informed assessment, as a person with as much access to anyone to our government’s intelligence during the initial year of the pandemic, has been and continues to be that that the lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science and by common sense,” said John Ratcliffe, who was director of national intelligence at the end of the Trump administration when the pandemic began.

Having represented Texas in the House before his 2020 cabinet-level appointment, Ratcliffe contended that evidence he collected during his time as head of the U.S. intelligence community provided more solid support to the lab-leak theory than the suggestion that humans contracted Covid-19 naturally from animals.

Why agencies like the CIA have not been able to make a firm assessment of the virus’s origins stumped Ratcliffe. “I find that unjustifiable,” he said, “and in reflection, it’s not that the agency can’t make an assessment with any confidence, but they won’t.” Ratcliffe suggested that the Biden administration does not want to face what he called the enormous geopolitical implications of acknowledging that Covid-19 originated from a lab in China.

Another Trump-era official invited to testify for Republicans about the lab-leak theory was David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Feith emphasized the threat to international security posed by a lab leak.

“If [Covid-19] emerged naturally, that implies certain things about human interactions with nature where the risks are sizable enough,” Feith testified. “But if it emerged from a lab, particularly one conducting gain-of-function biology experiments with technologies invented only a few years ago, this is akin to a Hiroshima event revealing new and modern high-tech risks to human civilization and even our species.”

Gain-of-function research refers to a type of testing aimed at increasing a virus’s transmissibility or severity. There has yet to be any conclusive evidence to prove that such research was being done in Wuhan, but proponents of the lab-leak theory, including some congressional Republicans, have suggested that it was done in part with U.S. government funding.

Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, told Congress in May 2021 that no gain-of-function research took place in Wuhan.


That the lab-leak theory has been painted as a conspiracy alarmed Feith, who blamed the perception on U.S. government officials and academics.

“These officials and scientists knew that Covid may have come from a lab, they knew that the lab leak could have resulted from research in Wuhan funded by the U.S. government, and they knew that if such research were in fact part of Covid’s origin, they would face professional and personal embarrassment,”

Intelligence experts from outside the Trump administration who testified Monday expressed reservations meanwhile about pinning the origins of the novel coronavirus on a manmade event.

“There has not been sufficient intelligence today to make a firm decision as to whether the virus occurred naturally or as the result of activity in a lab, whether witting or accidental,” said Mark Lowenthal, who served at the CIA as assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production from 2002 to 2005.

Lowenthal reasoned that it would be unwise for intelligence agencies to make a final assessment about how Covid-19 made the jump to humans without a firm grasp on the facts — facts that he said only the Chinese government could provide.

“Absent greater cooperation and transparency from China, which seems highly unlikely, we may never resolve this issue with certainty,” the former CIA official said.

Instead of focusing on the past, Lowenthal said that Congress and the intelligence community should take action to head off the next pandemic. He suggested that the government designate an individual to oversee intelligence issues related to public health, and said that the intelligence community needs more in-house health experts.

Lowenthal also warned against politicizing intelligence officials. “The intelligence community prides itself on being nonpartisan and objective, and I believe we meet these standards on a highly consistent basis," he said.

Up on the dais, Democratic lawmakers on the House oversight panel cautioned their Republican colleagues to consider all of their options when assessing Covid’s origins.

“The [intelligence] reports are inconclusive, and more research is needed,” committee ranking member Raul Ruiz said during an opening statement. “While our scientists and intelligence community continue their investigations, it is crucial that we empower them to do so without extreme partisan rhetoric or political biases that cherry-pick evidence to push a partisan political narrative that vilifies public health leaders.”

California Democrat Ami Bera echoed that sentiment. “I think we have to take both theories seriously," Bera said. "I think the intelligence community should continue to try to get an answer with high confidence.”

Although lawmakers weren’t in complete sync over the lab-leak theory, both parties agreed that the Chinese government would not be a helpful partner in determining the origins of Covid-19.

Congress’ work on the subject has already attracted Beijing’s attention. The House oversight subcommittee over the weekend shared an April 14 letter from Li Xiang, the Chinese embassy’s congressional liaison, expressing China’s frustration with the scheduled hearing. “We firmly oppose it,” Li wrote.

Subcommittee Chair Wenstrup said Monday that he was drafting a response.

Hours ahead of the House Republicans’ hearing, GOP leaders on the Senate Health Committee released a report that props up the lab-leak theory. Axios reported Monday night that the 300-page tome concludes that Covid-19 originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology based on lab-safety concerns and other factors present in the early weeks of the virus’s spread — although it does not make a definite conclusion.

Meanwhile, a report published by a team of Covid researchers in late March 2023 unveiled new information supporting the natural-transmission theory. The international coalition of scientists discovered information on DNA swabs taken from the Wuhan wet marked that had gone unreleased by Chinese scientists.

The swabs contained genetic information from an animal known as a raccoon dog along with genetic signatures from Covid — a finding that, while not conclusive evidence that the animals were infected with the virus, could lend itself to the theory that the virus jumped naturally from animals to humans.

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