China’s disapproval of a congressional probe and the U.S. government’s role in funding controversial bioresearch were key topics Tuesday as a special House panel dug further into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest hearing by the House Oversight and Accountability Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic came after the Chinese government issued a warning Friday about conducting the investigation.
Lawmakers asked several questions about U.S. responsibility in funding gain-of-function research, which is the process of making a disease more dangerous or contagious for the purpose of studying a response.
The U.S. government gave about $600,000 to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that in turn used the money to pay for coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
Here are four takeaways from the hearing.
1. Lab Leak ‘Only Explanation Credibly Supported by Intelligence, Science, and Common Sense’
The head of U.S. intelligence agencies under President Donald Trump told the panel that a leak from a laboratory is the only reasonable explanation for the rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
“My informed assessment, as a person with as much or more access than anyone to our government’s intelligence during the initial year of the virus outbreak and pandemic onset, has been and continues to be that a lab leak is the only explanation credibly supported by our intelligence, by science, and by common sense,” former National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, who served from May 2020 until Jan. 21, 2021, testified.
Ratcliffe, also a former congressman and assistant U.S. attorney from Texas, is the first current or former director of national intelligence to testify to the special oversight subcommittee.
If this were a trial, Ratcliffe said, “the preponderance of circumstantial evidence” from known intelligence would prompt a jury’s guilty verdict “to an accusation that the coronavirus research in the Wuhan lab was responsible for spawning a global pandemic.”
He added: “The Chinese Communist Party would be convicted of going to great lengths to cover up the virus’ origins.”
Ratcliffe pointed to the characterization of the lab leak theory of the origin of COVID-19 as a “conspiracy theory” by government, media, and social media in 2020.
Since that time, the Department of Energy, the FBI, and the Office of Director of National Intelligence all have said a lab leak was the probable cause of the pandemic.
The conclusion by Ratcliffe’s former office was reached with low confidence, testified the hearing’s lone Democrat-called witness, Mark Lowenthal, former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production on the National Intelligence Council, and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.
“One of the points I stress to new analysts is that you want the reader, the policymaker, to understand and appreciate your uncertainty as well as your certainty,” Lowenthal told the subcommittee.
Politics influenced the nation’s intelligence community, Ratcliffe said, pointing to a January 2021 report by its analytic ombudsman.
Reading from the report, Ratcliffe said that “analysts appeared reluctant to have their analysis on China brought forward because they tend to disagree with the [Trump] administration’s policies, saying in effect, ‘I don’t want our intelligence used to support those policies.’”
“To this day, the CIA, unquestionably the world’s premier spy agency with an unrivaled capacity to acquire information and near limitless resources to do so, has continued to state that it does not have enough information to make any formal assessment,” Ratcliffe said. “To put it bluntly, this is unjustifiable—and a reflection not that the agency can’t make an assessment with any confidence, only that it won’t.”
More transparency from China’s communist government would have minimized the spread of the virus and saved millions of lives globally, he said.
Rep. John Joyce, R-Pa., had a question.
“Had China cooperated and not suppressed actions by the World Health Organization, could this pandemic have not spread worldwide?” Joyce asked.
“Yes,” Ratcliffe answered.
2. ‘How-To Manual in Orchestrating a Cover-up’
House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., laid much of the responsibility at the feet of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the recently retired, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“These scientists have flipped 180 degrees with no new evidence, produced a paper not based on facts, and then may have used that paper to brief the intelligence community and suppress the lab leak hypothesis,” Comer said during the hearing.
“This is a how-to manual in orchestrating a cover-up by using some of the most powerful and influential institutions in our country,” he said. “If you ask me, this was set in motion by Dr. Fauci to hide U.S. funding of gain-of-function research and dodge accountability for a virus that has killed more than 1 million Americans.”
Comer referenced a March 2020 article published in the scientific and medical journal Nature Medicine. The subcommittee chairman asked two of the witnesses about that article: Ratcliffe and David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“It was prompted by Dr. Fauci and written to suppress the lab leak hypothesis,” Comer said of the article. “This paper stated that no type of lab-based scenario is possible.”
Comer asked Ratcliffe, “is that possible,” that the paper could be accurate to rule out a lab leak.
“It is not.”
“Mr. Feith, to you, is that statement factual?”
“Based on my understanding, no,” Feith said.
Comer noted that 10 days later, the State Department produced a memo saying that U.S. scientists assessed that the new coronavirus emerged naturally.
“It continued to say a lab leak was improbable and not supported by the available evidence. Director Ratcliffe, are those statements factual?” Comer asked.
“They are not,” Ratcliffe said.
“Mr. Feith, to you, are those statements factual?” Comer asked.
“No. They were at best overstated,” Feith said.
Comer went on to ask: “Director Ratcliffe, once you became director, did Dr. Fauci relay any of these concerns to you, that it may have come from a lab?”
“He did not,” Ratcliff said.
Comer asked why Fauci had left out information on this possibility.
“There is publicly available information obtained through open sources and freedom of information where Dr. Fauci and other virologists and scientists talk about the fact that it would bring unwanted attention to funding sources and the research that was taking place using domestic funding sources from the United States and the relationship of certain Western scientists with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where unsafe coronavirus research was taking place in labs that did not have appropriate biosafety levels, as has been reported,” Ratcliffe said.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., noted that in November 2021, Fauci told a Senate committee under oath that the National Institutes of Health did not fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. Fauci did so, Malliotakis said, despite a January 2021 email, which surfaced later, saying that NIH had a “monetary relationship” with the Wuhan Institute of Virology through EcoHealth Alliance.
“Given what we know now, if you were in Dr. Fauci’s position, would you have denied the NIH’s role in gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab?” Malliotakis asked.
Ratcliffe answered, “No.
Malliotakis followed up by asking: “Do you think Dr. Fauci lied under oath?”
Ratcliffe’s response was careful.
“I think that some of Dr. Fauci’s testimony is inconsistent with some of the intelligence we have that remains classified, as well as inconsistent with information that is publicly available,” the former national intelligence director said.
3. Wenstrup to China: ‘Intimidation Tactics Will Not Work’
The House select subcommittee will send a letter to the Chinese ambassador to the United States telling the Chinese government to stop trying to intimidate and obstruct the congressional investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, chairman of the subcommittee, referred to an email message to the panel last week from the Chinese Embassy.
“I am reaching out to express our grave concern regarding the COVID-19 origins hearing to be chaired by Congressman Wenstrup next Tuesday,” Li Xiang, a counselor with the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in the April 14 email.
“We firmly oppose it,” Li went on to say.
“We have some news for Beijing. These intimidation tactics will not work,” Wenstrup said early in the hearing Tuesday. “It will not slow down our work. And we will not cease. After the hearing, I’ll be sending a letter to the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. requesting that China cease intimidation tactics and cooperate with this investigation.”
The panel’s chairman also noted that this has been a pattern for the Chinese government, referencing an October 2021 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“What is clear is that China does not want the globe to know the origins [of COVID-19],” Wenstrup said. “They dodge and duck every legitimate attempt to investigate this question. According to the fact sheet, China has systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID pandemic’s origins. According to the ODNI report, China has hindered global investigations.”
4. ‘Hiroshima Event’
The gravity of a man-made virus should carry the same alarm as that of a nuclear bomb, noted Feith, the former State Department official in charge of East Asian and Pacific affairs, commenting on the COVID-19 death toll.
“If COVID emerged from a lab, particularly one conducting gain of-function virology experiments with technologies invented only a few years ago, then this was akin to a Hiroshima event, revealing new and modern high-tech risks to human civilizations and even our species,” Feith told the select subcommittee.
Feith added later:
It has been commonly said for 75 years that nuclear weapons could destroy the world or humanity. And so they might, but this would likely require many decisions in at least two capitals over some sustained period of time. The gain-of-function risk is that one mistake in one place—let alone one deliberate act by some state or non-state actor—is all that it takes. Once a virus of sufficient infectiousness and deadliness escapes a lab, there may be nothing humanity can do to stop it. This is the maddening and confounding tragedy of those experts who stigmatized even the notion of a lab leak.
The State Department was aware—it issued a related fact sheet in January 2021—of illnesses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology going back to the fall of 2019; of gain-of-function experiments on animals going back to 2016; and of the lab’s cooperation with the Chinese military.
“Prominent U.S. public health officials and scientists knew that COVID may have come from a lab,” Feith said. “They knew that a 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 could all face professional and personal embarrassment.”
“So these officials and scientists collaborated to convince the government and the public not to investigate the origin of COVID—at least not in a fashion that followed the evidence down paths that could point to a lab origin. This was not scientists acting as disinterested experts in their field,” he said.
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