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Home Truths on Where Covid Came From

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Home Truths on Where Covid Came From

The next Congress should investigate not only how the virus emerged but also the institutional failures that obscured the search for truth. November 17, 2022
Politics and law

Pessimists say that the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will never be known. The next Congress may have a chance to prove them wrong.

The Democrats have retained control of the Senate, but Republican capture of the House has now been confirmed. Though its margin will be small, the party will hold a majority in the chamber, and GOP-led committees can exercise subpoena power to uncover documents still withheld by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Though much of the relevant information remains concealed in China, the NIH paid for virus-manipulation research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, so it should retain progress reports and other relevant information.

It is beyond absurd that the genesis of the Covid-19 plague has become a partisan issue, with the Left favoring the natural origin explanation and the Right a laboratory source. But with Democrats having chosen to block congressional inquiry into the virus’s beginnings, the task of investigation has fallen to Republicans.

A Republican inquiry might start with the notorious February 1, 2020, teleconference attended by Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, two leading NIH officials, as well as the panel of virologists who had told them the previous evening that the SARS-CoV-2 virus seemed to be engineered, not natural. Within three days of the conference, the virologists had changed their minds and decried their original conclusion as not merely wrong but a conspiracy theory. Why?

Both Collins and Fauci are well known for long service and achievement in medical research. But in the twilight of their careers, they seem to have made a serious error of judgment. Having funded the virus enhancement research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, they should have recused themselves from inquiry as to whether the institute was the source of SARS-CoV-2. Instead, they presided over a series of events that led to suppression of the lab leak hypothesis. They excluded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was better qualified to investigate, instead delegating continuation of their inquiry to Jeremy Farrar, a senior British health official with known and intimate ties to China’s health bureaucracy. “This is not my area of expertise so I have backed off and am leaving it all to Jeremy,” Fauci wrote in a February 13, 2020, email. In Farrar’s hands, the inquiry died a safe death.

A Republican-controlled committee should subpoena every pertinent record from the NIH and the EcoHealth Alliance of New York, the intermediary through which NIH funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Several other agencies may also have relevant records, such as USAID, DARPA, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. We now have a fairly detailed picture of the kind of research that NIH and EcoHealth were promoting—thanks not to any commitment to openness and transparency on NIH’s part but because Freedom of Information requests from organizations such as Buzzfeed and U.S. Right to Know have extracted many emails (albeit heavily redacted) from the agency. The jewel of this document collection is a 2018 grant application from EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the Defense Department. The two groups proposed to manipulate SARS-like viruses with a procedure that would have produced viruses with all the distinctive features of SARS-CoV-2, if not the virus itself, depending on which starting virus was used.

Last month, the minority oversight staff of the Senate health committee issued a judicious and heavily referenced summary of available evidence about the natural emergence and lab leak theories of the virus’s origin. The committee’s careful interim conclusion is that the Covid-19 pandemic was “most likely the result of a research-related incident.” The committee’s House counterpart should be able to obtain further documents that could strengthen the finding to the level of what many would regard as sufficient proof.

If additional investigation validates the lab-leak scenario, the committee should not rest there. The hypothesis could not have been suppressed for so long without the failure of many important institutions. The 18 intelligence agencies under Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, could surely have gained access to the government documents on which the Senate health committee based its report. Yet they have failed to make any visible contribution to the issue. Haines should be asked why.

The scientific community is the locus of another institutional failure. Start with the professional journals: their editors are supposed to provide a neutral forum for any contributions of merit, not to put their thumb on the scale in favor of one theory or another. Yet leading scientific journals like Science, Nature, and the Lancet have consistently plugged the natural emergence hypothesis and downplayed that of a lab leak. These publications have wide influence within the scientific community. The congressional inquiry committee should summon Holden Thorp, Magdalena Skipper, and Richard Horton, the respective editors of the three journals, and ask them if they understand the meaning of scientific objectivity and the vast institutional damage done when the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge fail in their elemental duty to practice it.

Journals are not the only scientific institution to have fallen down in the pursuit of the virus’s origin. The National Academy of Sciences is chartered to give advice to the government. Under the leadership of its current president, Marcia McNutt, it has done nothing except issue a fatuous plea for discussants not to call each other rude names. True, the academy can address only questions the government asks of it, but it is well practiced at eliciting the questions it wishes to answer. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has been equally out to lunch.

As for the mainstream media, what can one say? The golden rule for science editors in reporting an open issue like the virus’s origin is not complicated. Cover all sides fully and fairly, and you won’t look foolish if the story turns out in a way you didn’t expect. The inquiry committee will want to ask science editors from the major media why they found it so hard to follow this simple rule.

The Covid-19 epidemic first emerged in Wuhan, almost on the doorstep of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where SARS-like viruses were being engineered for greater infectivity. That the two things could be connected is a possibility as plain as day. Yet for two years, people of influence gulled most Americans into believing the opposite of what common sense suggested. In whose interest was this colossal misdirection? Of course, in China’s. The congressional committee should look into China’s ability to influence the beliefs and actions of America’s elites. Did it lean on media companies with substantial sales in China, such as Nature’s owner, the German company Holtzbrinck? Did China exploit the close connections of its Western-educated health officials with their counterparts in the West? It matters a great deal whether American opinion leaders merely deceived themselves or were manipulated by others.

Photo by Amr Alfiky-Pool/Getty Images

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