The trove of newly public emails from Dr. Anthony Fauci only has intensified calls for more answers about the origins of COVID-19.
On some level, the executive branch and Congress are investigating the origins of the pandemic that has killed millions around the world and almost 600,000 in the United States.
The renewed attention comes amid mounting circumstantial evidence that the new coronavirus that causes the disease came from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate panel May 11 that the United States didn’t help fund research at the Wuhan lab that involved making the virus more contagious or otherwise dangerous.
However, the surfacing of an email exchange from Feb. 1, 2020, between Fauci and his deputy and fellow immunologist Hugh Auchincloss seems to cast doubt on that point.
That exchange is among thousands of pages of Fauci’s work emails obtained by BuzzFeed and The Washington Post in separate requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
The research mentioned in the Fauci-Auchincloss exchange is called “gain of function” and describes a risky process of making a disease more dangerous or contagious for the purpose of studying a response.
The U.S. government did give hundreds of thousands of dollars to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that in turn used the money to pay for coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab.
The broad questions include: Did the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 originate in a wet market near the Wuhan lab, as public health officials in both the United States and China insisted for more than a year? Or did the coronavirus originate in and somehow escape the Wuhan lab?
If the virus did originate in the Wuhan lab, did U.S. taxpayers help fund the related research? Are Fauci and other government officials shooting straight with Americans about what they know and don’t know?
Although the dominant media has just begun to express interest in getting answers, multiple avenues of inquiry have been opened by members of Congress, the intelligence community, and academia.
Here’s a guide to what’s next as more U.S. officials push for answers.
1. Single Party Interest in House
Several congressional Republicans have demanded an investigation of the origins of the virus, but House Democrats thus far have been fairly quiet.
“The left-wing media and Democrats quickly dismissed the Wuhan lab COVID-19 origins theory as a ‘fringe conspiracy theory’ but it has been plausible from the start,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told The Daily Signal in an email interview.
The Daily Signal also sought comment on the need for an investigation from Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., but her office had not responded as of publication time.
Other GOP lawmakers pushing for an investigation include House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who also is ranking member of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Even recently released emails from Dr. Anthony Fauci show that the scientific community expressed concerns the virus was not naturally occurring,” Comer told The Daily Signal. “House Democrats have only politicized the pandemic with partisan investigations and have refused to investigate the origins of COVID-19.”
Comer and other House Republicans have requested documents and briefings from federal officials to get answers. However, only House Democrats, as the majority party, have the power to compel information.
“House Republicans have repeatedly called on Democrat leadership to join us in our investigation and we will continue doing so,” Comer said. “It’s deeply concerning that the House Democrat majority continues to shield Communist China from accountability. How COVID-19 originated is one of the most pressing questions and the American people deserve answers.”
The partisan split is somewhat odd, since U.S. funding that went to the Wuhan lab overlapped the Obama and Trump administrations. Also, the National Institutes of Health, the parent agency to Fauci’s institute, placed a pause on gain-of-function research during the Obama administration. NIH lifted that pause during the Trump administration.
Moreover, Fauci, one of the government’s highest-paid officials, has worked under seven presidents from both parties in his tenure overseeing NIH’s infectious diseases agency since 1984.
Most recently, President Joe Biden, a Democrat, announced a 90-day review by the intelligence community, and Senate Democrats back further investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
2. Intelligence Community Review
As pressure mounted on the question, Biden announced May 26 that he had ordered the investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies into the origins of COVID-19.
Biden said the intelligence community had coalesced around two likely scenarios, “each with low or moderate confidence.”
“The majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” the president said, referring to the government’s 16 separate intelligence agencies.
Those two scenarios involve either a lab accident or a natural emergence in China, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines told the House Intelligence Committee in testimony April 15.
Biden said intelligence agencies would redouble efforts to analyze information to “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” and report back to him in 90 days.
“As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” Biden said. “I have also asked that this effort include work by our national labs and other agencies of our government to augment the intelligence community’s efforts.”
Biden said he asked investigators “to keep Congress fully apprised.”
“The United States will also keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence,” he said.
3. Senate Action
The Senate, split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, hasn’t moved toward investigative hearings, but has been considerably more bipartisan than the House.
A day after Biden’s announcement, the Senate gave unanimous approval to a GOP-sponsored bill calling for U.S. intelligence to declassify information related to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Americans need real answers. We will not get those answers from another botched investigation from the World Health Organization, or more cover-ups by China’s communist regime,” said Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
“Americans have been through so much from this virus,” Braun said. “Many of us have lost friends and loved ones, many have lost businesses they’ve spent their lives building. President Biden must declassify all U.S. intelligence related to any link between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the COVID-19 pandemic, so that independent researchers and the American people can get answers.”
Although Braun said it was not enough, the Senate in a separate vote unanimously adopted a resolution May 28 calling for the World Health Organization to begin a comprehensive probe into the origins of the new coronavirus.
4. Looking Into NIH and WHO
Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee note that the Chinese government restricted access to the World Health Organization earlier this year when that global authority attempted to investigate where the coronavirus came from.
WHO has faced steady criticism for close ties with China. However, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a biologist whose personal connections with China have been scrutinized, has determined that further investigation is necessary.
In March, McMorris Rodgers wrote a letter to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, Fauci’s boss, asking why the World Health Organization’s investigation fell short of looking into the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Two other GOP members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Reps. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Morgan Griffith, R-Va., joined McMorris Rodgers in the letter to Collins.
They requested NIH grant documents and progress reports—which agency policy requires—that would include mandatory reporting elements and information about research participants.
During an April 28 committee hearing, Collins told McMorris Rodgers that it would take a full scientific investigation to determine the origins of COVID-19.
Last month, asked about a lab leak in Wuhan, Fauci said “that possibility certainly exists and I am totally in favor of a full investigation of whether that could have happened.”
McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith later asked to be briefed on COVID-19’s entry into the United States by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, on the job since Feb. 2.
5. EcoHealth Alliance
In mid-April, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee extended their inquiry into EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit that received $598,500 in U.S. tax dollars and spent it studying coronavirus in bats at the Wuhan lab between 2014 and 2019.
NIH sent a letter to EcoHealth Alliance in July 2020, asking about its relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. NIH also suspended the nonprofit’s grant pending answers to several questions.
Specifically, NIH asked EcoHealth Alliance to explain the disappearance of a scientist who worked at the Wuhan lab, and to allow a U.S. government-led inspection of the lab.
In October 2014, NIH had put a pause on funding for all gain-of-function research, not limited to one grant or one lab. The agency allowed such funding again in December 2017, when Donald Trump became president.
“We believe through its research activities, collaborations, and [EcoHealth Alliance’s] relationship with the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] as a federal award subrecipient, that EHA has information and documents that will provide insight into the WIV’s bat coronavirus information and pathways for further research in this area,” says the April 16 letter from McMorris Rodgers, Guthrie, and Griffith to Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance.
Their letter continues, referring to EcoHealth Alliance as EHA:
EHA officials have repeatedly stated that they do not believe the pandemic was caused by a lab leak and have solicited support for others to advance that position publicly. However, there is substantial and increasing support from the international scientific community and public health experts, including from the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros, for further investigation into COVID origins, including the possibility of a lab leak.
Since EHA is confident that a lab leak is not the cause, we expect you to welcome the opportunity to share any and all information, documents, and expertise you have related to bat coronavirus research at the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology].
Daszak, EcoHealth Alliance’s president, has been a long-time partner of the Wuhan lab in engaging in bat coronavirus research, the committee Republicans say.
Samples of the virus from bats apparently were genetically sequenced at the Wuhan lab in partnership with EcoHealth Alliance. Genetic sequencing doesn’t automatically mean that researchers modified the virus samples.
In May, the three committee Republicans requested a classified briefing from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which had issued a report a year earlier on potential origins of COVID-19.
Sinclair Broadcast Group first reported that the Livermore lab’s study concluded that the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus may have originated in a laboratory in China.
On May 28, Comer and Jordan began looking into the NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance. The two House Republicans wrote to Collins and Fauci requesting more information, saying:
There is mounting evidence the COVID-19 pandemic started in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Communist Party covered it up. If U.S. taxpayer money was used to develop COVID-19, conduct gain of function research, or assist in any sort of cover-up, EcoHealth Alliance must be held accountable. …
It is incumbent upon grant recipients to ensure their work is performed within the scope of the grant, advances our national interest, and protects our national security. It is vital to understand if U.S. taxpayer funds were at all affiliated with a pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly 600,000 Americans so we can prevent similar future catastrophes.
The trove of Fauci emails released this week show that EcoHealth Alliance’s Daszak thanked Fauci in an April 2020 message for publicly rejecting the Wuhan lab leak theory.
“I just wanted to say a personal thank you on behalf of our staff and collaborators, for publicly standing up and stating that the scientific evidence supports a natural origin for COVID-19 from a bat-to-human spillover, not a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Daszak wrote to Fauci.
6. Wuhan Lab and Chinese Military
The House Energy and Commerce members also asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to declassify information that the State Department based a January “fact sheet” on. That fact sheet says researchers at the Wuhan lab and the Chinese military worked together on “secret projects” in conducting classified research.
The State Department fact sheet dated Jan. 15—five days before Biden was sworn into office—says of the Wuhan Institute of Virology:
Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017. The United States and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.
Blinken has said he wants to know more.
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Blinken said April 21. “We need to do that precisely so we fully understand what happened, in order to have the best shot possible [at] preventing it from happening again.”
The State Department fact sheet from the last days of the Trump administration also noted that COVID-19 infections came earlier in China than initially reported:
The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses. This raises questions about the credibility of WIV senior researcher Shi Zhengli’s public claim that there was ‘zero infection’ among the WIV’s staff and students of SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-related viruses.
SARS-CoV-2 is another technical name for COVID-19.
7. International Probes
Although under suspicion for its ties to China, the World Health Organization has called for more information from that nation’s communist government after doing a preliminary review.
The U.S. Senate’s adoption of a bipartisan resolution for a more comprehensive investigation comes in this context.
Similarly, the European Union also has pushed for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the continent.
Senior U.S. scientists, in an open letter published May 14 in the peer-reviewed journal Science, called for the United States to follow suit to get to the bottom of the matter.
“As scientists with relevant expertise, we agree with the WHO director-general, the United States and 13 other countries, and the European Union that greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve,” the letter from the 18 scientists says, adding:
We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data. A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest. Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public.
8. A 9/11-Style Commission?
Dr. David Relman, a microbiologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has advocated something akin to a 9/11 Commission to investigate the origins of COVID-19.
Although the 2001 terrorist attacks happened in a single day, the pandemic “has so many different manifestations, consequences, responses across nations,” Relman told Vanity Fair. “All of that makes it a hundred-dimensional problem.”
The federal government isn’t likely to establish such a bipartisan commission, but Relman is a member of the new, nongovernmental COVID Commission Planning Group. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs established the group, which is made up of more than two dozen virologists, public health experts, clinicians, and former public officials.
Leading the planning group is a University of Virginia professor, Philip Zelikow, who served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission.
The origins of the pandemic is one element that the group is looking at. Others are preventing such a pandemic from happening again, national readiness, caring for the sick, and data issues.
The group will not have the power to compel anyone to produce documents or to testify, as Congress or a government-established commission would. But it can gather information, which it could provide if the government sets up a bipartisan commission.
A University of Virginia press release announcing the planning group states:
Congress and the Biden administration might soon consider whether or how to organize a National COVID Commission. Such a commission might be initiated by the White House or chartered by Congress. Alternatively, an independent, privately organized national commission could answer a broad set of questions while avoiding some of the challenges of the current political environment. However, if Congress and the White House prefer to establish a government commission, the planning group will offer its work to that effort.
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