Science takes back seat to politics in first House hearing on origin of COVID-19 pandemic

Some scientists and legislators might have hoped this morning’s U.S. congressional hearing on the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic would move beyond partisan politics and seriously investigate what has become a deeply divisive debate . But members of the House of Representatives’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic mostly hammered home long-standing Republican or Democratic talking points, shedding no new light on the central question: Did SARS-CoV-2 naturally jump from animals to humans or did the virus somehow leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, China?

“It was very disappointing, and almost unbelievably divorced from the science,” says University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Worobey, whose published research in Science supporting a natural “zoonotic” origin of the virus has been attacked by proponents of the lab-leak scenario.

In his opening remarks of the first House hearing on the pandemic’s origin, subcommittee chair Brad Wenstrup (R–OH) charged that his Democratic colleagues had “failed to ask” where the virus came from in the 3 years of the pandemic when they were in the majority. Wenstrup and his Republican colleagues spent much of the next 2.5 hours questioning four witnesses about the likelihood that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which received some funding from the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to study bat coronaviruses. They repeatedly suggested the possibility of a lab leak had been suppressed by high level U.S. government officials, including former NIAID head Anthony Fauci.

The ranking member, Raul Ruiz (D–CA), countered with criticism of the Republicans’ “slate of handpicked witnesses”—the three selected by the majority all favored the lab-leak scenario and neither Fauci nor Worobey were invited to the hearing. Ruiz complained that the “hearing marks a concerning step down the path of letting extremism get in the way of an inquiry that should be led by science and facts.”

Ruiz said he was particularly “alarmed” about one of the three witnesses selected by the Republicans, journalist Nicholas Wade, who previously covered science for The New York Times , Nature , and Science . Ruiz said Wade’s 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History , had been “applauded by white supremacists,” and the congressman charged that his “participation hurts the credibility of this hearing.” Another Democrat on the hearing panel, Kweisi Mfume (D–MD), who is Black, said it “burns me” that the forum included “somebody with these sorts of beliefs.”

Wade, who has written extensively about what he sees as mainstream media’s failure to investigate COVID-19’s origin and has argued that scientists at WIV likely created SARS-CoV-2 by engineering a coronavirus in their collection, strongly objected to the bashing of his character and the book. “I am not a racist,” Wade said. “I don’t have anything in common with the views of white supremacists.”

When the hearing returned to COVID-19’s origin, it took a deep dive into some key scientific issues—all of which have received abundant attention in the past. One is the undisputed fact that SARS-CoV-2 includes what’s known as a furin cleavage site (FCS) in its surface protein, a feature that makes it easier for the virus to infect human cells. No severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-related bat coronaviruses yet found has an FCS, and some scientists early in the pandemic raised the idea that the virus had been lab created.

Wade focused on a now-infamous 1 February 2020 teleconference in which Fauci listened to several of these concerned scientists discuss this possibility with coronavirus experts. Four of these scientists later published a paper in Nature Medicine that concluded “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

Wade described their change of thinking, which released emails suggest happened by 4 February, as a “strange thing.” And without providing any evidence, he linked the shift to a $9 million grant that two of the co-authors of the Nature Medicine commentary soon received from NIAID. On 5 March, the subcommittee’s Republican majority released a memorandum that, based on newly disclosed emails, also alleged Fauci “prompted” the drafting of the Nature Medicine paper.

But many scientists have said SARS-CoV-2’s FCS could have evolved naturally. Researchers have found SARS-related coronaviruses that have mutations moving their surface proteins in this direction. They also note that members of the larger beta coronavirus genus, to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs, have these cleavage sites and have been found in bats.

Fauci also issued a statement on 6 March that said the Republican memorandum “contains false and misleading assertions” about his role in the contested commentary. “I did not ‘prompt’ the drafting of any publication that would ‘disprove’ the lab leak theory nor was I involved in drafting or editing any portion of the Nature Medicine paper,” he said.

Kristian Andersen, who co-authored the paper and was one of the recipients of the $9 million grant , notes that an independent peer-review panel scored the proposal in November 2019 and the NIAID council approved it in January 2020, which was before the teleconference took place.

Representative Debbie Dingell (D–MI) urged that her Republican colleagues not “smear” public health officials, “rehashing unfounded theories” that “Dr. Fauci and other health experts have blocked investigations into the pandemic’s origins.”

Hearing witness Robert Redfield, a virologist who directed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during former President Donald Trump’s administration, said he was chagrined that he had not been invited to that 1 February phone call. He claimed it was because of his position that the virus could have come from a Wuhan lab—although several members on that call expressed similar views at that time. “It was told to me that they wanted a single narrative,” said Redfield, who contended, “They squashed debate.”

Wade also said the Wuhan lab had in 2018 written in a grant proposal to a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense that it wanted to insert an FCS into bat coronaviruses, a charge repeated by members of the subcommittee. He said rather than a SARS-CoV-2 progenitor evolving this cleavage site, it was “easier to believe that the Wuhan researchers did exactly what they proposed and generated the SARS-2 virus in their lab.”

But the proposal he refers to, which was submitted by the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance and included many collaborators, explicitly says those proposed experiments were meant to take place at the University of North Carolina (UNC), not WIV. “This section of the proposal was written by collaborators at UNC in the U.S., where the work would have been carried out,” says Peter Daszak, head of EcoHealth, which posted a lengthy critique of other claims made at the hearing. “Importantly the grant was not funded and the work not done.”

Wade did not reply to a request from Science asking whether he had evidence to support his claim that WIV, not a U.S. university, had proposed to do the insertion of the cleavage site.

Jamie Metzl, a lawyer and historian at the Atlantic Council think tank, was the third Republican witness favoring the lab-leak hypothesis. Metzl, who says he is a lifelong Democrat, stressed that “the Chinese government has done everything in its power to prevent the type of investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that is 3 years overdue and urgently required.” Metzl, who has a large following on social media, urged the subcommittee not to make this “primarily about Dr. Fauci,” which he said would be “inappropriately serving the Chinese government a propaganda coup on a silver platter.”

The one witness invited by the panel’s Democrats, Paul Auwaerter, said he was speaking on behalf of the Infectious Diseases Society of America—he’s a past president—not his employer, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Auwaerter, who has not previously spoken publicly about the debate, said at the moment he thought the evidence pointed more strongly toward the zoonotic hypothesis “but that we need to attend to both.”

At the hearing’s end, Metzl wrote Science that “there was a lot of political grandstanding,” but said “it was positive to hear both parties agree a lab origin is a distinct possibility and that we need a comprehensive investigation into all relevant origin hypotheses.”