Democrats cry white supremacy at COVID origins hearing as experts make scientific case for lab leak

No smoking gun, but theory is "warm to the touch" based on SARS-CoV-2 oddities, Democrat argues. Former CDC director says he was shut out of Fauci conversations to preserve "single narrative."

Published: March 8, 2023 7:14pm

Updated: March 8, 2023 11:15pm

The steady release of Anthony Fauci's early 2020 communications with scientists who depended on his good graces for research funding has left Democratic lawmakers with few options for defending their early characterization of the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory and blocking declassification legislation on COVID origins.

They fell back on familiar themes at the first hearing of the Republican-led House coronavirus pandemic subcommittee Wednesday — white supremacy and former President Trump's failures — while now questioning whether the world could ever pin down COVID's origin.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) claimed that Trump praised Chinese COVID policies at least 42 times in a "fawning, starstruck, sycophantic embrace" of President Xi Jinping's messaging. "Let's take the politics out of it," Raskin concluded. 

"Unfounded conspiracy theories" is how Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) characterized claims based on communications involving the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or describing conversations with him, in the pandemic's first few months.

She parroted Fauci's recent New York Times claim that he "repeatedly" called for "an open mind" on COVID origins despite a Feb. 9, 2020 interview where Fauci called lab-leak a conspiracy theory.

Subcommittee Republicans released a memo earlier this month citing newly obtained communications from Scripps Research Institute immunologist Kristian Andersen that say Fauci "prompted" him and other scientists to write the "Proximal Origin" paper dismissing lab-leak. He also confirmed that pangolin coronavirus sequences did not "refute a lab origin."

Andersen's lab received millions from NIAID starting two months after Nature Medicine published the paper, according to National Institutes of Health records cited in testimony by science journalist Nicholas Wade, who has held top jobs at Nature, Science and The New York Times and wrote a 2021 deep dive on the lab-leak theory.

It took until nearly the end of the hearing for that tidbit to emerge, prompted by visiting Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), because Wade barely got a chance to speak.

Ranking Member Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) accused the majority of discrediting the hearing by refusing to disinvite Wade, citing praise for his 2014 book on "the genetic basis of race" by white supremacists including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. 

"All of them like you," Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) told Wade, calling the book "steeped in this conspiracy theory" that minorities are so genetically distinct that they're "culpable" for their victimization. Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii) said the book disqualifies Wade's testimony.

The book states that "we are all variations on the same human genome," and claiming it supports white supremacists is like saying photos from space support "flat-earthers," Wade retorted. Former CDC Director Robert Redfield defended Wade as an "outstanding science reporter" and noted the Baltimore Sun implied Redfield was racist for leaning toward lab-leak.

Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) opened the hearing by summarizing the lab-leak case: a viral genome whose binding domain and furin cleavage site are unique in its class, dramatically more infectious than SARS or MERS, predicted by the 2018 DARPA grant application by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whose research used a poor biosafety standard. 

Republicans expressed more interest in the science than did Democrats. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-Iowa), former director of the state's public health department, asked witnesses to explain the "endonuclease fingerprint" of SARS-CoV-2 if it were natural.

An Intelligence Committee member who voted for the declassification bill that Democrats blocked in 2021, Wenstrup noted the measure was returning to the House floor Friday. Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) called it a bipartisan success, and Redfield called declassification crucial for answering questions the scientific community could not.

The Chinese government has done everything to stop a credible investigation, Democrat and former World Health Organization adviser Jamie Metzl said, asking American leaders to match the "courage of brave Chinese citizens" who went to prison for investigating.

While there's no smoking gun for lab-leak, the theory is "warm to the touch," Metzl said, noting how quickly an intermediate-host animal was found for SARS and MERS compared to nothing for COVID despite "very aggressive" sequencing by China. "I'd love for this thing to be from nature" to minimize the political ramifications, Wenstrup said.

Metzl's informal Paris Group of experts investigating origins, deemed conspiracy theorists, had "zero success" in placing papers in scientific journals to argue their case for the first year, he said. Even so, he urged the subcommittee to avoid an undue fixation on Fauci's role.

The natural-origin theory won in public because it "got out first," and science leaders killed its nascent competitor, Wade said. It's a stretch to believe that evolution would produce SARS-CoV 2's defining characteristics "at that very time and that very place," when WIV said it wanted to play with furin cleavage sites.

A virologist of 45 years who has worked in dual-use labs, Redfield called COVID a "case study" in the danger of gain-of-function research, which he blames for unleashing the pandemic. Redfield cited his lengthy shutdown of Fort Detrick for cutting corners on biosafety as the most difficult but necessary decision he made at the CDC.

Public health leaders repeatedly "packaged" a message that "wasn't necessarily truthful" rather than admitting, say, they don't know the optimal natural-immunity level to pare back COVID restrictions, Redfield said.

He believes he was excluded from Fauci's conversations with other scientists and the WHO after January 2020 because Redfield argued it was "immediately the most infectious virus" besides measles they had seen, very different from SARS or MERS, and didn't seem to replicate well in bats, the supposed origin.

"They wanted a single narrative," Redfield said, noting he was unaware of his exclusion until Freedom of Information Act records showed Fauci's crucial Feb. 1 conference call that preceded the writing of Proximal Origin.

Yale University epidemiologist Harvey Risch told "Just the News, No Noise" that Fauci and then-National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins likely excluded Redfield because "they couldn't trust him to toe their party line" that the virus didn't show signs of being "genetically engineered."

Democrats' lone witness Paul Auwaerter, speaking for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, reinforced their new talking points about the murkiness of COVID's origins. He had trouble defending the natural-origin theory to Rep. Rich McCormick (R-Ga.), blaming classification in part for lack of evidence he could cite.

Making claims without data "fuels confusion and mistrust" when the world needs more global coordination and funding for pandemic preparedness, Auwaerter said. While gain-of-function research is "inherently risky," he said the world could face greater risks without it.

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