The Washington Post

GOP seizes on ‘lab leak’ shift as it expands covid probes

Energy Dept. analysis emboldens lawmakers despite lack of unanimity


Emboldened by an Energy Department analysis that concludes with “low confidence” that the coronaviru­s pandemic probably began with an accidental lab leak in central China, Republican­s on Capitol Hill are teeing up new demands for informatio­n and broadening their planned probes of covid-19’s origins.

The classified report remains a minority view among the nine intelligen­ce entities probing the pandemic’s origins, most of which still favor the theory that the virus naturally “spilled over” from animals to humans, probably in a Wuhan market near where the first cases of an unusual pneumonia were reported. None of the other agencies have changed their view after seeing the report, officials say, and peerreview­ed scientific papers published last year also favor the spillover explanatio­n.

But the Energy Department analysis, first reported Sunday by the Wall Street Journal, arrived just as GOP congressio­nal leaders had embarked on their covid oversight agenda. They have promised multiple probes into whether Chinese officials covered up a lab accident, and targeted scientists such as Anthony S. Fauci, the recently retired U.S. health official whose agency had supported virus research in China.

Republican­s also cheered FBI Director Christophe­r A. Wray’s interview on Fox News on Tuesday — his first public comments on the matter — where he confirmed reports that his agency concluded that “a potential lab incident in Wuhan” probably sparked the pandemic.

In interviews Monday, Repub

lican lawmakers touted the Energy Department’s conclusion, which bolsters long-standing GOP talking points, while acknowledg­ing they had yet to read the classified report.

“It gives us momentum to expose the true origins of covid,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (RKan.), who supported Senate probes into Fauci and argued in favor of the leak theory, citing the virus’s infectious­ness and ability to evade human immune systems. “As a physician myself, a biochemist­ry major, I think that there’s just no way this virus could have come from nature. It’s just too perfect.”

The House select subcommitt­ee probing the coronaviru­s response, meanwhile, sent letters to the Energy Department, State Department and FBI on Monday, seeking an array of new materials and broadening its investigat­ion into the pandemic’s origins.

“Your documents and testimony are essential to informing the Select Subcommitt­ee about what the U.S. government knew regarding the origins of COVID-19 and when the government knew it,” Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) and James Comer (R-KY.) wrote to Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Monday. Wenstrup chairs the covid panel and Comer leads the House oversight committee.

The Gop-led covid panel in the House, which invited its first experts to a roundtable Tuesday that was largely critical of the Biden administra­tion’s response, also announced a hearing next week to delve into the origins of the virus.

Senate Republican­s pledged to continue their own oversight, with lawmakers such as Sens. Marsha Blackburn ( Tenn.) and Ron Johnson ( Wis.) on Monday citing the Energy Department analysis as a reason to impose new transparen­cy rules on the World Health Organizati­on.

Many experts say they support further probes, arguing that understand­ing the origins of the virus is important to protect against future threats, including possible laboratory accidents. But they caution the cause of the outbreak remains unclear — and may never be conclusive­ly proved since China destroyed animals sold at the Wuhan market when it shut down the market. Chinese authoritie­s have also refused to cooperate with internatio­nal investigat­ors demanding unfettered access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“In my view, we don’t have enough informatio­n to be highly confident in either a laboratory source or a natural source for the pandemic,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a former Biden administra­tion official. “We need to continue to be in seek [answers] mode.”

Some scientists said Monday that Gop-led probes had become counterpro­ductive, calling for lawmakers to instead focus on peer-reviewed research suggesting a natural origin for the virus. There is no evidence SARS- COV-2 was in any laboratory before the outbreak.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wondering whether this pandemic started with a lab leak,” said University of Arizona evolutiona­ry biologist Michael Worobey, a specialist in viral epidemics, who noted he was among the earliest proponents of the leak theory — before “a year of really intense research” prompted him to change his mind. Worobey has since published peer-reviewed findings suggesting the virus probably spread to humans from a Wuhan market where wild animals were sold and butchered, a theory also backed by other experts.

“This latest [Energy Department]-generated media cycle is just another reminder of how disjointed the discussion is from the scientific evidence,” Worobey said.

Four current and former administra­tion officials, who have been briefed on the government’s classified investigat­ions, also cautioned against relying solely on the Energy Department’s new report, noting that its conclusion­s are not shared by most agencies probing the virus.

One of those former officials told The Washington Post that he entered government “open to persuasion” on the leak theory and left more persuaded by the natural origin hypothesis.

“I was just really, genuinely curious what they actually knew,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who joined the Biden administra­tion as one of the senior officials overseeing the coronaviru­s response in 2021 and requested a classified briefing on the virus’s origins. “It was a mixed picture [then], and I think that it remains a mixed picture . . . you can read into it whatever you want.”

The intelligen­ce agencies reached agreement in 2021 that the virus was not a bioweapon; most agencies also said Chinese officials did not know about the virus before the outbreak began. Chinese officials have repeatedly dismissed leak arguments, denouncing the new Energy Department report as defamatory.

The leak theory was debated within the Trump administra­tion and in high-level public health circles as early as January 2020, floated by lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-ark.) the following month and eventually embraced by President Donald Trump. Many scientists pushed back against what they described as “conspiracy theories,” claiming such discussion was reckless, and Democrats and experts such as Fauci emphasized the idea was not supported by evidence.

Backlash among scientists prompted social media companies to limit posts about whether the virus was man-made, contending that it was misinforma­tion. Media organizati­ons, including The Post, also gave such arguments short shrift before revising or correcting the stories as more evidence emerged that the leak theory was under considerat­ion.

“The controvers­y basically turned into a political blame game, and then people pinned themselves to certain positions, which tends to close the mind rather than keep it open,” said Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor who chairs the Covid Crisis Group, a team of experts who have spent more than two years probing the virus response.

But by 2021, even Trump critics were acknowledg­ing the possibilit­y that the virus may have slipped out accidental­ly from a Chinese laboratory, amid the Biden administra­tion’s reexaminat­ion of the issue and Americans’ frustratio­ns with a pandemic that upended society and killed more than a million people. That June, comedian Jon Stewart floated the leak theory in an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” joking about the coincidenc­e of a new coronaviru­s emerging in a city where Chinese scientists were studying coronaviru­ses.

Republican­s, who last year campaigned on promises to grill Fauci and other scientists about their virus research, reiterated their calls on the heels of the Energy Department’s analysis. On Sunday, House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders vowed to probe deeper into “why high-ranking government officials, with help from Big Tech and the media, sought early on to silence any debate” about the virus’s origins.

Members of the House covid panel, such as Reps. Richard Mccormick (R- Ga.) and Michael Cloud (R-tex.), have pledged to use their new authority to expand their investigat­ions.

Democrats said they supported further investigat­ion but called for patience.

“The truth is that we need to continue to get to the bottom of this,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (Calif.), the covid panel’s top Democrat, chastising the “politiciza­tion, partisan rhetoric and conspirato­rial accusation­s” that he said have impeded the covid response.

“The important part is to allow the intelligen­ce and public health communitie­s to do their work, before we jump to conclusion­s,” Ruiz said.

 ?? HECTOR RETAMAL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES ?? The Wuhan Institute of Virology in China conducts research on coronaviru­ses, and there is speculatio­n that an accidental lab leak there might have set off the global pandemic that has killed millions and rocked public health systems and economies.
HECTOR RETAMAL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES The Wuhan Institute of Virology in China conducts research on coronaviru­ses, and there is speculatio­n that an accidental lab leak there might have set off the global pandemic that has killed millions and rocked public health systems and economies.

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