COVID origin report reignites firestorm over ‘lab leak’ theory

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A new federal assessment saying a lab leak was the likely origin of COVID-19 is feeding new oxygen into Republican calls for further investigations, even as scientists and the intelligence community say the issue is still far from resolved.

In the wake of a Wall Street Journal report published over the weekend on an Energy Department conclusion that COVID-19 most likely came from a lab leak in China, Republicans claimed vindication.

“Senator Tom Cotton deserves an apology,” the Republican National Committee tweeted Monday.

In February 2020, Cotton (R-Ark.) raised the possibility, without evidence, that the virus had originated in a Chinese biochemical lab, though he later walked back his assertion that the virus was a weapon.

“Being proven right doesn’t matter. What matters is holding the Chinese Communist Party accountable so this doesn’t happen again,” Cotton tweeted.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) speaks to reporters as he leaves an all Senators briefing in the Capitol on Tuesday, February 14, 2023 to discuss the recent unidentified objects detected and shot down. (Greg Nash)

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said on Sunday that he will introduce legislation to declassify intelligence findings about the likely origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, a call that was echoed by other Senate Republicans.

The White House spent Monday downplaying the report, emphasizing that intelligence agencies have not yet found any conclusive evidence whether the virus came from a lab or nature.

“There’s not been a definitive conclusion, so it’s difficult for me to say, nor should I feel like I should have to defend press reporting about a possible preliminary indication here,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said during a press briefing.

“What the president wants is facts. He wants the whole government designed to go get those facts. And, that’s what we’re doing, and we’re just not there yet,” Kirby said.

Yet House Republicans are revving up a probe into the virus’s origins that began while they were in the minority last year.

They retooled the focus of the panel investigating the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and have fired off letters demanding information and testimony from current and former Biden health officials, including Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Anthony Fauci
Anthony Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

On Monday, House Republicans expanded the probe to include the Department of Energy, the Department of State, and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), which has also assessed that a lab leak likely sparked the pandemic.

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic already has a hearing scheduled for Tuesday to examine the administration’s COVID policy decisions, and the new report is likely to become a focus.

But the U.S. intelligence community is split on the conclusion that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab, and the new report from DOE was reportedly made with “low confidence.”

In addition, politics and conspiracy theories have led to the origins of the pandemic becoming a third rail, with some conflating the possibility of a lab leak with theories of a Chinese biological weapon, which intelligence agencies have collectively debunked.

While many scientists contend there are legitimate questions to be asked about the origins of the virus and the U.S. response, much of the effort has been framed around political point-scoring.

“The left spent the past 2yrs trying to censor the truth & cover up for Communist China, but the facts are undeniable,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) tweeted Sunday. “The CCP is evil. Its virus killed millions & Xi will stop at nothing to destroy the U.S. It’s time to hold this evil regime accountable.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.)
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.)

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to examine global threats and strategy on Wednesday, February 15, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)

Experts fear the continued politicization of the issue combined with China’s unwillingness to cooperate diminishes the likelihood of finding out what really happened.

A bipartisan pandemic response bill was included in last year’s omnibus funding bill, but it did not contain a provision that would have established an independent commission to investigate the government’s pandemic response and the virus’s origins.

And the latest DOE assessment only adds to the divided views within the government about where COVID came from.

“When somebody puts something forward with low confidence, that tells you right there that you know, the level of evidence is extremely limited, if anything at all,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Osterholm said he’s not surprised at the politicization, though he contends it’s more useful to look ahead to the next pandemic than to look backwards.

“If a government agency said we now have low confidence conclusions that this was a spillover event, do you think that that would change anyone’s mind?” Osterholm said. “Is it a surprise that what may be a scientific data point is twisted and turned to whatever direction someone wants it to fit their political persuasion? This is no longer about science. It’s about political science.”

During an interview with The Boston Globe on Monday, Fauci said he still thinks there’s more evidence supporting a natural origin, but neither possibility should be ruled out.

“I’m not sure exactly of the data upon which the Department of Energy statement was made. It would be nice to see those data in order to make an evaluation of the validity of that but again, the bottom line is we need to keep an open mind until one definitively nails down what the origin is,” Fauci said.

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