A bipartisan front of senators called on President Joe Biden to pull out all the stops to determine COVID-19’s origins and investigate possibly connected issues, such as U.S. government funding for coronavirus research at a Wuhan lab.
The unified message from the leaders of two powerful committees focuses partly on the debate over gain-of-function research. Last week, Sen. Rand Paul requested Attorney General Merrick Garland to initiate a criminal investigation into Dr. Anthony Fauci over his Senate testimony, during which the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the National Institutes of Health never funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab, which the Kentucky Republican said was a lie under oath.
Fauci repeated over the weekend it would have been “negligent” for NIH not to fund bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and declined to commit not to collaborate with Chinese government scientists in the future, insisting, “We have always been careful.”
Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Mark Warner of Virginia along with Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Marco Rubio of Florida, the head and ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Biden directly on Tuesday, calling on him to reconsider the United States’s funding of research in China.
“The United States must complete a thorough review of existing and prior U.S. government support or funding for research collaboration with the PRC related to gain-of-function, synthetic biology, biotechnology, or other research areas that pose dual-use concerns,” the senators said. “U.S. taxpayer funding should not support any collaboration with PRC entities that pose health, economic, or security risks for the United States.”
The senators said China “has demonstrated lax biosecurity standards, violated the International Health Regulations, attempted to steal intellectual property related to COVID-19 vaccines, and may be in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” arguing the U.S. “should not be partnering with or funding any country that exhibits these risk factors.”
A State Department fact sheet released in January contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
The fact sheet asserted the lab “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military” and that lab workers became sick with coronavirus-like symptoms in autumn 2019.
NIH’s RePORTER website said the agency provided $15.2 million to Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance over the years, with $3.74 million toward understanding bat coronavirus emergence. Daszak maintained a long working relationship with Wuhan lab “bat lady” Shi Zhengli, sending her lab at least $600,000 in NIH funding. Daszak was also part of the World Health Organization-China team that dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as “extremely unlikely” earlier this year.
The bipartisan Senate leaders told Biden: “As part of a formal review, we therefore urge you to analyze the following: any direct or indirect U.S. taxpayer funding or engagement with entities in China, including the WIV, regarding gain-of-function research or other forms of research related to viruses, pathogens, and toxins; whether any such research for civilian purposes was diverted for military research; any U.S. taxpayer funding that was used to support gain-of-function research in China during the U.S. moratorium on such research from 2014-2017; and steps taken, if any, to apply additional scrutiny to direct or indirect U.S. government funding, including sub-grants, to support gain-of-function studies in China, including at WIV, after the U.S. government lifted the moratorium on gain-of-function research in 2017.”
The U.S. intelligence community said in May that at least one of its 18 agencies is leaning toward the lab leak hypothesis. That same month, Biden ordered all spy agencies to “redouble” investigative efforts and gave them 90 days to report back — a period of time that is not yet complete. Former President Donald Trump, former CDC Director Robert Redfield, and others have said the Wuhan lab is the most likely origin for COVID-19.
The senators said in their letter they “agree that the intelligence community must lead a thorough investigation into the origins of COVID-19” but emphasized that “if the 90-day effort you have announced does not yield conclusions in which the United States has a high degree of confidence, we urge you to direct the intelligence community to continue prioritizing this inquiry until such conclusions are possible.”
The senators said the U.S. intelligence community “should examine relevant research” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control, and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. They argued spy agencies “must evaluate evidence” about sick Wuhan lab workers and scrutinize “details of any research in synthetic biology and biotechnology connected to the Military-Civil Fusion strategy” as well as “other military work or funding” at the Wuhan lab.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said earlier this month there was a “premature push” to dismiss the lab leak theory during the first WHO-China investigation earlier this year. The Chinese government shot down a second investigation into its government labs earlier this month, calling instead for U.S. military labs to be scrutinized, a move condemned by the White House.
“Since the beginning of the epidemic, China has taken a scientific, professional, serious, and responsible attitude in tracing the origins of the virus,” China‘s foreign ministry spokesperson insisted earlier this month.
“The U.S. government should lead efforts by the international community and the WHO to seek a transparent forensic investigation in the PRC,” the senators said. “The PRC has an obligation to the international community to allow a full, unfettered, impartial, and scientific investigation into COVID-19 origins. In light of the PRC’s continued stonewalling of WHO efforts, the U.S. government should work with our allies and partners to use all available resources and tools to pressure Beijing to permit a serious investigation.”
Meeting minutes from discussions between lab scientists and the WHO-China team reveal lab leak concerns were referred to as “conspiracy theories.” The WHO-China report concluded the most likely origin for COVID-19 was a jump from animals to humans. However, the U.S. and others have cast doubt on the credibility of that inquiry due to a lack of access to raw data and Chinese influence over the findings.
“The threat to international health and security posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive and opaque governance of the People’s Republic of China has become glaringly apparent over the past eighteen months, particularly given the PRC’s efforts to conceal the severity and scope of the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic,” Menendez, Risch, Warner, and Rubio said in their letter.