House Republican intel panel members seek major probe of COVID-19 origins

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Republicans on the House intelligence oversight panel are pressing President Biden to launch a major probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

California Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on intelligence, noted that GOP members of the panel are conducting their own inquiry into the virus pandemic that began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

“We write to request that you initiate a whole-of-government effort to identify the origins of the virus and to direct federal agencies and departments to examine all plausible scenarios as part of such investigation,” Mr. Nunes wrote in a letter to the president May 16.

The committee is pursuing the matter in studying “Chinese threats to U.S. economic and national security,” said Mr. Nunes.

The Republican probe uncovered “substantial circumstantial evidence” that a laboratory accident in China caused the outbreak — a theory rejected by a joint World Health Organization-Chinese government inquiry earlier this year. The WHO-China final report said no further investigation into the laboratory origin should be carried out unless new information surfaces.

Democrats, who control of both the House and Senate, have shown no interest in conducting an inquiry into the virus origin, a congressional aide said.

China’s government has denied the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the central focus of American intelligence agencies investigating the virus origin. The WHO probe said the jump from an unknown animal host to humans is still the most likely source of the global pandemic.

Recent congressional testimony by intelligence officials triggered a public debate on the laboratory leak theory that for more than a year was dismissed by many scientists and several major news outlets as a fringe conspiracy theory.

Former New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. disclosed on Monday that editors at the newspaper spiked a 4,000-word report on the laboratory leak theory in the spring of 2020 because it ran counter to the narrative at the time that a lab leak was impossible. Last week, 18 biologists including several leading experts on the virus, published a letter in the journal Science calling for a new investigation and demanding China release the information its laboratories have on the matter.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress last month that a laboratory leak of the virus that U.S. intelligence analysts assess that a laboratory leak and animal-to-human transmission are the two most plausible sources for the coronavirus. China so far has refused to open its records to international virus investigators regarding work conducted on viruses at the WIV.

The Trump administration in January said the Wuhan lab is suspected as a source for the pandemic because workers there became sickened with COVID-19-like sickness in the autumn of 2019. The lab also worked on a bat coronavirus that is 96% similar to the COVID-19 virus. WIV also worked on secret experiments for the Chinese military, the State Department said at the time.

“It is critical that this possibility be thoroughly examined, particularly in light of the Chinese government’s obstruction of multilateral bio-forensic investigations and its destruction of important evidence,” Mr. Nunes said. Citing Ms. Haines’ testimony, he added, “It is unclear, however, if the intelligence community or any other part of the U.S. government is seeking to determine the truth.”

The House Republicans noted the comments of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said learning the origin of the virus is important to prevent future pandemics and create a stronger health security system.

Mr. Nunes also said the U.S. government funds have supported, directly or indirectly, dangerous dual-use scientific research at the WIV. 

“Our findings, though incomplete, suggest the United States supported such work despite clear evidence of the People’s Liberation Army’s involvement at the WIV,” he said.

“It is essential that your administration examine this matter and ensure that appropriate threat assessments are conducted any time the U.S. government considers collaborating with a foreign adversary on future dual-use research,” Mr. Nunes said, adding that the president should launch an inquiry into government funding of dangerous foreign research. “My Republican colleagues and I hope you will agree that getting to the truth is of critical importance.”

A White House spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment on whether the White House will support a major virus origin investigation.

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