The report, while not an official scientific document, represents a possible model for a future investigative hearing in Congress if Republicans take control of the House or the Senate – or both – after the midterm elections. The so-called “lab leak” theory is a hot topic for some Republicans seeking office, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has promised hearings if his party wins the Senate.
The 35-page “interim” report released Thursday comes from Sen. Richard Burr (RN.C.) and Republican staffers of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which investigated the origin of the virus.
Although the report favors the “laboratory leak” origin, it does not exclude a commercial origin. The report also does not engage in the most provocative arguments about how SARS-CoV-2 entered the human population. There is no claim that the virus was designed as a bioweapon, for example.
Nor does it mention Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been a frequent target of Paul and other lab leak supporters because his institute helped fund virus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
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The report’s findings diverge sharply from those of two peer-reviewed studies published in the journal Science this summer that presented the case of the Huanan Seafood Market as the epicenter of the outbreak. A study has revealed a geographical target in the market among the first cases of the disease called covid-19. The other study presented an analysis of two early strains of the virus suggesting that there were two and possibly many more distinct spillovers of the virus from animals sold in the market.
Scientists favoring commercial origin do not know which animals were infected or where they came from. No animals in the market were tested before the market was closed and cleaned.
“There is a lack of critical corroborating evidence of a natural zoonotic spillover. Although the absence of evidence is not in itself proof, the lack of corroborating evidence of one or more zoonotic spillovers, three years into the pandemic , is highly problematic,” the new GOP report says.
Michael Worobey, a University of Arizona professor and co-author of the two studies published in Science, said the new GOP report is “completely off the track.”
“As the saying goes, when you mix science and politics, you get politics.” he said.
Worobey said the hypothesis of some sort of lab incident was worth investigating, and he was among the scientists who wrote a letter to Science in May 2021 saying all possible origins should be probed. But he said his investigations and those of other scientists point to a commercial origin.
He said he was ready to testify if Republicans call hearings.
David Relman, a professor of medicine at Stanford University and one of the experts interviewed by committee staff, hailed the report as a credible effort to gather a wealth of information, including on safety issues at Chinese labs.
“I think it’s a sober and fair treatment of what is largely a body of circumstantial evidence that argues for both hypotheses,” Relman said. “But in particular raises questions about the assumption that a natural overflow must have been the cause.”
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of one of the scientific papers, dismissed the new GOP report as a “speculative wave of the hand” and considers it a partisan document.
“It serves to try to put in place something that would be politically advantageous for a party,” she said. “It’s to facilitate show trials primarily for people’s adversaries, which unfortunately have come to include scientists.”
The report lands in the final days of an election cycle where several Republicans — including Paul, who sits on the health panel — have accused Fauci of hiding information about the origins of the virus.
“We owe it to the Americans who have lost their lives to the virus, their families, and those who are still struggling with the societal and economic consequences of the pandemic, to continue to investigate the origins of the coronavirus,” Sen. Roger said. Marshall (R-Kan.) in a statement Thursday, calling on Fauci to “release all texts, emails, communications and grant recordings completely and without redaction.”
Burr, who is retiring this year, has taken a more conciliatory approach with Fauci, praising the work of the longtime government scientist at a hearing last month and attempting to focus the report on broader biosafety issues.
While concluding that a research-related incident is the “most likely” origin of the outbreak, the new report stops well short of a case closed declaration. Burr’s introductory note is ambiguous.
“This conclusion is not intended to be determinative,” reads the main text of the report. “The lack of transparency from government and public health officials in the [People’s Republic of China] regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 prevents a more definitive conclusion. Should additional information be made public and subject to independent verification, these findings may be subject to review and reconsideration.
The panel’s report was led by Robert Kadlec, an adviser to Burr who served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration.
Some health officials, including Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Trump administration, have reiterated their belief that a lab leak in China is the most likely cause of the pandemic.
“I think you’re going to see that the preponderance of evidence for the origins of covid-19 is that it doesn’t come naturally. That’s my own view,” Redfield told a House committee investigating the government’s response to the coronavirus in March.
In a statement Thursday, the top Democrat on the panel reaffirmed that a separate investigation into the origins of the virus was underway.
“[I]n 2021, I announced a bipartisan surveillance effort with Senator Burr on the origins of this virus. The HELP committee is continuing its bipartisan work on this oversight report,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health Committee.