Coronavirus

US COVID-origins hearing renews debate over Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis

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The US House of Representatives has launched a series of public hearings to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic started, with a focus on whether a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, China was responsible.

The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic has acknowledged that the origin of the virus has become highly politicized, but believes both hypotheses — the natural spread of the virus from animals to humans and the lab-leak theory — should be investigated, the Nature journal reported on Thursday.

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Republicans, who control the House, led the hearing on March 8 and invited three witnesses, all of whom support the lab-leak hypothesis, while the Democrats invited one witness, who disagreed.

“This question is fundamental to helping us predict and prevent future pandemics, protecting our health and national security and preparing the United States for the future,” said committee chair Brad Wenstrup, Republican representative for Ohio, in his opening statement.

The hearing also featured allegations that Anthony Fauci, former director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), had dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis early in the pandemic, and the credibility of one of the witnesses, Nicholas Wade, was questioned.

Republicans were motivated to seek answers after the Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Energy (DOE) had given a classified intelligence report to the White House stating with “low confidence” that the pandemic probably began with a lab leak.

The National Intelligence Council and four other agencies supported the idea that the pandemic had a natural origin, also with “low confidence,” and two agencies were undecided.

In August 2021, all of the agencies, including the DOE and the FBI, concluded that SARS-CoV-2 was not a bioweapon engineered and released from a lab intentionally. Some scientists have criticized the hearings, describing them as unscientific and lacking in rigor.

Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, who has studied genetic evidence from the early days of the pandemic, said they do not bode well for the overall investigation.

However, David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California, believed both hypotheses should receive serious attention and that there was no definitive evidence to support either at present.

The issue of COVID-19’s origins has been a controversial topic among scientists for some time. In February 2020, some researchers published an article in The Lancet declaring that the virus’s origin was from nature, and not from a laboratory.

However, since then, a number of scientists have publicly called for more research into the lab-leak hypothesis.

Speaking at the hearing, Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believes that answers about the origin of the virus will not come from the scientific community, but from the intelligence community.

China has been vocal in its opposition to the lab-leak theory, with spokesperson Mao Ning stating that certain parties should stop “rehashing” the narrative, and “stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing.”

The country has long maintained that it supports and participates in global science-based origins-tracing.

The committee has yet to schedule its next hearing.

Read more:

FBI director says China lab leak likely caused COVID-19 pandemic

White House says no consensus on COVID-19 origin following reports of lab leak

China must be ‘more honest’ on COVID origins, envoy says

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