Chinese lab leak theory for coronavirus pandemic deserves further investigation, Congress hears

Though there's no "smoking gun," experts called by congressional Republicans at the first national-level hearing into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic say the United States should continue investigating whether a Chinese lab accidentally released the virus that causes COVID-19.

Most international health experts have downplayed that possibility, instead preferring to focus on learning from the global response itself to the pandemic that has killed an estimated 7 million people worldwide. But a subcommittee formed after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January is examining theories that have been widely dismissed by the scientific community as racist conspiracies.

Where did COVID come from?

Determining the origins is politically sensitive because the investigations could further heighten U.S.-China tensions. Public health experts say international cooperation is key in fighting pandemics, and assigning blame could reduce future cooperation.

None of the witnesses called by the Republican-controlled House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic provided new evidence proving their contention that the virus came from a lab but instead cited events, grant proposals and other incidents as too coincidental to ignore.

The Biden administration plans to end both the COVID-19 national emergency and the public health emergency on May 11, 2023.
The Biden administration plans to end both the COVID-19 national emergency and the public health emergency on May 11, 2023.

Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees some high-security labs of its own, concluded with low confidence the virus came from a lab leak in Wuhan, China. FBI Director Christopher Wray echoed that, saying a lab leak was "most likely" the source.

"This is not necessarily a smoking gun, but the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a gun that is, at very least, warm to the touch," testified Jamie F. Metzl, an international relations expert, commentator and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

House Republicans investigate COVID origins

Metzl joined virologist Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and former New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade, in pushing for further investigations into the possibility of a lab leak.

Redfield was an early proponent of the lab leak theory. He and others have called for a global moratorium on gain-of-function research, arguing it's too dangerous under current structures.

In gain-of-function research, scientists deliberately alter a virus to test the effectiveness of vaccines or other treatments. Redfield argued oversight of such research should not be limited to scientists, and the broader community should decide whether it's worth the risks.

The CDC and the labs it oversees have themselves violated containment procedures hundreds of times, as USA TODAY reporting has shown, including a 2014 incident in which smallpox vials were moved between labs in a cardboard box.

A health worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic in Reading, Pa. On Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.
A health worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic in Reading, Pa. On Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.

Redfield ran the CDC under President Donald Trump, who praised the Chinese government's pandemic response but also called the virus the "Kung flu," a label that many Asian American leaders accused of helping drive anti-Asian attacks nationally since the pandemic began.

Most experts say the pandemic probably started when an existing coronavirus naturally mutated and jumped from an animal to a human, possibly at a wildlife market in Wuhan. That's how other viruses, including MERS, SARS and Ebola, are believed to have started, in a process called zoonosis. But citing reports of respiratory illness among Wuhan researchers in fall 2019, the lab leak theory argues that scientists researching gain-of-function made the coronavirus more virulent and then accidentally released it.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican, noted that the two origin theories have sharply divided Americans and said he is committed to following the science. He also criticized Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for pushing the health community to downplay the possibility of a lab leak.

Stopping the next global pandemic

Speaking at the request of the subcommittee's Democrats, Dr. Paul Auwaerter, of the  Infectious Diseases Society of America, echoed many of Fauci's previous statements during the hearing and stressed the importance of global cooperation.

"We may never know conclusively where the COVID-19 pandemic originated. Making claims that cannot be supported sufficiently by available data fuels confusion and mistrust," he said. "But we can still learn valuable information from these investigations. And ultimately, we should use that information to prevent outbreaks and pandemics with environmental or human-based origins to avoid loss of life and severe societal disruption."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID lab leak theory for coronavirus debated by Congress