Congress takes up COVID origins: A primer on the debate so far

It’s been more than three years since a novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, sparking a global pandemic that’s been blamed for 6.8 million deaths. Yet there is still a rancorous debate over how it began. 

U.S. public health officials and many scientists say the available evidence strongly indicates that the virus spilled over from wildlife to humans, as happened in many previous outbreaks. They consider the question virtually settled.

But a lack of transparency from China – as well as, critics charge, the United States – has allowed speculation to persist that it could have started with a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). And whether or not a lab leak is to blame, critics say the failure to be forthcoming and to disclose conflicts of interests has undermined the public trust needed to build consensus and move forward.

Why We Wrote This

House Republicans say they are trying to get needed transparency on how the pandemic started, but others worry a partisan probe will further muddy the waters.

The stakes are immense, with U.S.-China relations and funding for scientific research and pandemic prevention all hanging in the balance. Lawmakers, public interest groups, and scientists concerned about risky lab practices argue that if a lab leak occurred, it’s vital to understand what happened and adjust international protocols. Scientists convinced of a spillover, however, worry that giving oxygen to what they see as a demonstrably incorrect hypothesis could put a damper on virus research that could help prevent future pandemics. 

For better or worse, House Republicans are now unleashing Congress’ investigatory powers. The first hearing, on developing more capabilities for quickly determining a pandemic’s origin, will be held tomorrow, Feb. 1.

What is the debate about?

The natural origins theory refers to a scenario by which the virus spilled over to humans from animals, likely in a Wuhan live wildlife market that sold species pinpointed as the source of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, such as badgers. The lab leak theory, on the other hand, posits that scientists working with bat coronaviruses in a lab inadvertently allowed one such virus to jump to humans. The WIV houses one of the biggest collections of bat coronaviruses in the world. 

Early on in the pandemic, public health officials and prominent scientists came out in support of the natural origins theory, with some dismissing other possible explanations as “conspiracy theories.” In May 2021, however, a group of scientists signed a letter in Science magazine saying the lab leak theory remained viable, and advocating a transparent investigation into both hypotheses. 

One of those scientists, Michael Worobey, wound up spearheading a peer-reviewed paper in Science the following summer that scientific colleagues and many in the media hailed as the most definitive case yet for a natural origin. The head of the University of Arizona’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, Dr. Worobey had previously studied the origin of the AIDS epidemic. 

He and his coauthors analyzed data from a range of sources, including 155 of the earliest COVID-19 cases shared by China, and identified the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan as the pandemic’s epicenter. The findings, Dr. Worobey says, are on par with a famous cluster map pinpointing a water pump in London’s Soho neighborhood as the source of an 1854 cholera outbreak. 

The authors acknowledged that the available evidence was incomplete, and the intermediary species through which the virus could have passed from bats to humans has yet to be identified. But Dr. Worobey says their analyses indicate that there is an “extremely low” likelihood that the pandemic could have started with a lab leak. 

A companion piece he coauthored describes two separate outbreaks at the Huanan market. For a WIV lab leak to trigger those, Dr. Worobey says, an infected lab worker would have had to travel nearly 10 miles through a city of 11 million without leaving a trace – at least five times. “It’s just ridiculous,” he says. 

Those findings, however, rely on data provided by China to the World Health Organization (WHO) about early COVID-19 cases. And some of Dr. Worobey’s fellow signees on the May 2021 letter – Jesse Bloom, Alina Chan, and David Relman – are skeptical that that data was complete.

“It’s all surmised largely through the filter of the Chinese authorities,” says Dr. Relman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File

Members of the World Health Organization team shake hands with their Chinese counterpart after a press conference at the end of the WHO-China joint investigation in Wuhan, China, Feb. 9, 2021.

What investigations have been undertaken so far?

The first major investigation into the origins of COVID-19 was conducted jointly by the World Health Organization and China. Investigators spent a few hours at the WIV and their March 2021 report devoted just three of 313 pages to the lab leak hypothesis, deeming it “extremely unlikely.” A WHO-convened advisory group later said that both hypotheses warranted further investigation but more data was needed.

In May 2021, President Joe Biden called for a 90-day review into the matter by the U.S. intelligence community. In their 17-page report, all agencies agreed that both the natural origins and lab leak hypotheses were plausible. Four “elements,” the report said, leaned toward natural origins, with low confidence, while one assessed with moderate confidence that it was most likely a lab leak. Others said more information was needed. 

Dozens of Monitor inquiries, including to the White House and the Departments of State, Defense, and Health and Human Services (HHS), failed to turn up any other investigations. 

That contrasts with other national crises. Within three years of 9/11, a bipartisan commission published a 600-plus-page report analyzing what led up to the attack and how to prevent another one. In the last Congress, both the House and Senate introduced bipartisan bills to establish a similar commission on the COVID-19 pandemic, but neither came to a vote.

The Biden administration is not waiting for answers on COVID origins to shape its pandemic prevention and preparedness efforts. A newly updated National Biodefense Strategy outlines how to counter biological threats, including cross-border disease outbreaks and the “increasing” risk of lab leaks. In its $1.7 trillion budget last month, Congress increased discretionary funding for some of those programs, aimed at preventing greater costs down the line.  

“To us, it’s a very strong return on the taxpayer dollar,” says Raj Panjabi, senior director for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council.

How have transparency concerns shaped the debate?

One factor keeping the origins debate alive has been China’s tight control of information. The Chinese government refused to share raw data on early cases with the WHO, and has required COVID-19 studies to be vetted by the government. A WIV database of viruses has not been externally accessible since mid-September 2019. 

Increasingly, critics are shifting their attention to the U.S., particularly the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Leading up to the pandemic, the NIH was funding research on the potential for bat coronaviruses to jump to humans – with the goal of preventing a pandemic. NIH awarded a $3.1 million grant to a New York-based nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance, which then funneled about $600,000 to WIV. 

Those who still suspect a lab leak want the NIH to provide more details on the lab’s research interests, capabilities, and safety protocols. They say the agency has been unusually slow to respond to both congressional inquiries and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and has heavily redacted documents before releasing them. 

“In 35 years of doing this, I have never personally bumped up against a stonewalling effort as I have from the NIH regarding the origins of COVID-19,” says Gary Ruskin, an advocate for transparency in public health and former partner of Ralph Nader. His small nonprofit, Right to Know, has filed FOIA lawsuits against NIH and eight other federal government entities. 

In written answers to the Monitor, NIH said it fully intends to respond to FOIA requests but is working through a pandemic backlog. “In many cases, the litigation process further slowed response time,” NIH added.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her GOP colleagues on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who have been trying to get information from health officials since March 2021, wrote to NIH in late November expressing concern over its “persistent lack of transparency.” 

They want to know more about the WIV’s virus collection and biosafety record and NIH’s oversight of coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab. HHS’s inspector general recently conducted an audit of NIH’s grant to EcoHealth Alliance, faulting both the agency and the nonprofit for lack of oversight. EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak told the Monitor in a written statement that the organization, which researches emerging diseases with the goal of preventing future pandemics, “complied in a timely manner with every request from NIH and other funding agencies, providing tens of thousands of pages of documents.”

Those convinced by the evidence for a natural origin say going down a rabbit hole of “what ifs?” about a lab leak is counterproductive at best, since it’s impossible to prove a negative. And they worry that political or policy agendas, including the decade-long effort to put more guardrails on virus research, could color investigations.

“What I see going on is an incredible victory on the part of people who want to muddy the waters,” says Dr. Worobey. 

Democratic Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, a physicist, says there are very few theories that can be disproved to a determined conspiracy theorist. But he says “a lot more transparency” is needed in order to see where the preponderance of evidence lies. 

A key lesson from the pandemic, he adds, is that nearly every entity, from nursing homes to national governments, had some incentive not to be fully transparent. “One of the major jobs of Congress, and the public through FOIAs, [is] to make sure that the natural tendency to keep things like mistakes secret doesn’t win the day,” says Representative Foster, who as chair of the House Science oversight subcommittee in the last Congress held a rare bipartisan hearing on COVID origins.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

Anthony Fauci, then-director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies before a Senate committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 20, 2021. Dr. Fauci retired in December 2022, after more than five decades of service.

Can Congress overcome partisan politics to get answers?

During the last Congress, partisan divides over the COVID origin question were already emerging. The GOP minority produced House and Senate reports that pointed to a lab leak as the more likely scenario. Democrats, who held the authority to call hearings and subpoena witnesses and documents that might have provided a fuller picture, declined to join in. 

At a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last fall, Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado touted her past work improving CDC lab biosafety but rejected her GOP colleagues’ call for the Biden administration to provide documents on U.S.-funded virus research at the WIV. She accused them of engaging in a “witch hunt” and drawing “unfounded connections” between NIH-funded research and the pandemic’s origin.

Democratic committee staff declined repeated requests to further explain Democratic reluctance to probe NIH-funded research at the WIV, or their broader views on when congressional oversight of labs is warranted.

It’s no secret, however, that Democrats have been appalled at Republicans’ treatment of Dr. Anthony Fauci, a veteran NIH official and prominent presidential adviser during the pandemic who Representative DeGette noted had received death threats. Public sparring matches in congressional hearings between Dr. Fauci and GOP lawmakers, which often went viral, struck many Democrats as more about scoring political points than getting answers. Dr. Fauci retired in December.

Now in the majority, House Republicans this month established a new select subcommittee to investigate the pandemic – including the origin question and in particular whether U.S.-funded virus research could be to blame, something public health officials and scientists have flatly denied. The 12-member panel – seven Republicans and five Democrats appointed by their respective leaders – will be chaired by an Ohio podiatric surgeon, GOP Rep. Brad Wenstrup. 

Meanwhile, Chair Rodgers – whose Energy and Commerce committee has legislative jurisdiction over the NIH – is hosting her first COVID origins hearing tomorrow, Feb. 1. 

“It’s the No. 1 public health issue,” says the congresswoman from Washington state, who plans to subpoena – among others – Dr. Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, the recently retired head of NIH. 

A key area of concern is how HHS reviews grants involving risky virus research. A Jan. 18 report from the Government Accountability Office called for more transparency and oversight, noting that the NIH – which issued 82,000 grants last year alone – flagged only three grants for departmental review in five years. 

Last week, a federal biosecurity panel voted unanimously to approve new recommendations, according to STAT News. But some expressed concern that the effort to establish more guardrails could wrap virus research in red tape.

A recent public letter from more than 150 virologists this month echoed those concerns. They said they stood ready to lend their expertise in congressional hearings about how best to conduct research on human pathogens, but warned against “ill-informed condemnation” of their work.

“It’s going to end up really marginalizing efforts to prevent the next pandemic from a natural source,” says Dr. Worobey.

Representative Foster, the physicist, says Congress may not be the best mechanism to lead a COVID origins investigation, given how few lawmakers have a scientific background. He would prefer that Congress commission a set of outside experts to look into it. 

The 9/11 commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, convened dozens of experts to draw up a road map and relevant materials for such a commission. But with no commission in sight, the group plans to produce their own report in April. 

A key goal, says Mr. Foster, would be to produce a congressional report that is not only accepted by the U.S. and its allies but also countries with which the U.S. has little in common, given what he sees as the need to develop more robust international protocols around virus research, with auditing and enforcement mechanisms. 

To that end, Mr. Foster says members of Congress and their staffers should take the time to read the scientific studies, understand the ideal path forward, and engage with the rest of the world to make that happen. “This is a common interest of all humanity,” he says.