Congress Wants Accountability Over Growing COVID Suspicions
WASHINGTON — Suspicions shifted sharply Wednesday at a congressional hearing toward a lab leak as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bigger question confronted by the House Oversight and Accountability subcommittee was what can be done to stop the next deadly virus that could kill millions of people.
“This is one more way we can provide for our defense,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, chairman of the subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic.
Medical experts who testified at the hearing presented disturbing evidence of a Chinese government cover-up that sought to portray the virus as a natural occurrence that jumped from bats to humans.
The truth appears to be that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology failed to stop viruses they manufactured from spreading first to their staff, then the local community and finally the entire world, according to the witnesses.
Nearly 1.2 million Americans and more than 20 million people worldwide have died from the virus. About 750 million have been infected.
New evidence suggests the lab researchers were sick with the virus as early as September 2019, three months before the Chinese government reported it to the world.
In addition, the genetics of the virus indicate it is unlikely to have evolved normally in nature, according to a recent U.S. Energy Department report. The bats blamed by the Chinese government for starting the virus rarely get sick from COVID-19 while it spreads like wildfire among the human population.
Regarding the natural origins theory of COVID-19, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said, “If you want to be truthful, it’s antithetical to science.”
A more plausible explanation is the gain-of-function research done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the low level of the lab’s security, he said.
“Gain-of-function research has long been controversial in the scientific community,” Redfield said. In the case of COVID-19, he blamed the research for “unleashing a new virus on the world without any means of stopping it.”
Gain-of-function research refers to altering the genetics of organisms to enhance their biological functions, which could mean they pass more easily between people or become more dangerous to them. The research is intended to reveal genetic targets to better predict emerging infectious diseases and to develop vaccines and therapeutics for them.
In one example, influenza B can infect only humans and harbor seals. Introducing a mutation that infects rabbits allows laboratory research that has led to antiviral medicines.
Redfield’s thoughts on the origin of COVID-19 were joined by science writer Nicholas Wade, who said, “The natural origins theory has grown steadily weaker, it seems to me.”
Some lawmakers questioned whether the National Institutes of Health might have contributed to confusion about the origin of the virus by funding research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology but later denying gain-of-function created the virus to avoid any blame.
Former NIH Director Anthony Fauci has denied the U.S. government funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan.
Some lawmakers are skeptical.
“Somebody has to be held accountable,” said Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., added a more ominous scenario to risks created by altering the genetic structure of viruses.
“Bad actors are out there who just saw what a virus did to the entire planet,” he said.
Although Congress still debates how to confront risks from manufactured viruses, a ban on gain-of-function research is one of the proposals. Others would give more funding to the CDC.
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