On Tuesday, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic held an oversight hearing on “The Proximal Origin of SARS-CoV-2,” a peer-reviewed paper that played an influential role in shaping the early public debate about the origin of Covid-19. The paper was published in the journal Nature Medicine in March 2020 and came out firmly in favor of a natural origin for the virus, with its five prominent authors writing that “we do not believe any type of laboratory scenario is plausible” in explaining the origin of SARS-CoV-2.
Since its publication, the “Proximal Origin” paper has been accessed online more than 5 million times. It has been widely cited in the media. And key government officials—including then-NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—have promoted it in public venues.
After the paper’s publication, for instance, Collins touted it in a March 2020 blog post on the NIH’s website, writing that “this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19.” Roughly a month later, in April 2020, Collins e-mailed Fauci lamenting the fact that the lab leak theory continued to gain traction.
“Wondering if there is something NIH can do to help put down this very destructive conspiracy theory, with what seems to be growing momentum,” Collins wrote to Fauci on April 16, 2020. “I hoped the Nature Medicine article on the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 would settle this. But probably didn’t get much visibility. Anything more we can do?”
Fauci responded the next day saying, “I would not do anything about this right now. It is a shiny object that will go away in times [sic].” However, later that same day, April 17, Fauci referenced the Proximal Origin paper from the White House podium in response to a reporter’s question on the origin of the virus.
What Fauci didn’t mention at the podium, however, was the fact that the Proximal Origin paper grew out of a series of confidential discussions between top scientists and high-ranking government officials, including Fauci himself, during the early days of the pandemic. Many key details from those confidential discussions, which The Nation has reported on at length, were not made known to the public until FOIA requests and lawsuits pried them loose from the NIH beginning in 2021.
The FOIA records show that in late January and February 2020, several top virologists expressed their serious concerns to Fauci, Collins, and others about the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 had been engineered or otherwise emerged from a laboratory. These concerns sparked a series of urgent and confidential conversations among a group of virologists and biologists, as well as Fauci, Collins, the UK-based scientist Jeremy Farrar, and other influential health officials. The discussions included a close look at the unusual features of the virus and also included speculation about what type of laboratory work might have caused the virus’s emergence. Within days of the group’s initial February 1 teleconference, several scientists in the group began circulating a document that would eventually evolve into the final Proximal Origin paper. By the time the final version of the paper was published in mid-March 2020, the scientists had discarded concerns about genetic engineering, and they deemed any laboratory-based scenario implausible.
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The GOP Turns the House Judiciary Committee Into an Absurdist Spectacle
The GOP Turns the House Judiciary Committee Into an Absurdist Spectacle
The authors of the paper have repeatedly described the evolution of their thinking as an example of the scientific process at work. Others, including former CDC director Robert Redfield and numerous Republican politicians, have argued that the Proximal Origin paper appears to have been part of an effort to downplay the lab leak theory and cement a public narrative that the virus had a natural origin.
The Proximal Origin paper’s influence and the urgent, confidential, government-linked deliberations from which it emerged have since drawn the scrutiny of congressional oversight investigators. The Republican-controlled subcommittee probing Covid origins asked the Proximal Origin authors to attend the hearing this week. Only two of them—Dr. Kristian Andersen of Scripps and Dr. Robert Garry of Tulane University—accepted.
During the hearing, Garry and Andersen strongly defended the Proximal Origin paper’s findings and their involvement in the discussions that informed it, and reiterated their support for the natural origin theory of SARS-CoV-2’s emergence.
“Yes, I do believe that the natural origin via the wildlife trade is the most likely origin based on all the science, all the data that we have analyzed,” said Garry.
In his written testimony, Andersen, who has also been subpoenaed by the subcommittee, categorically denied the “absurd and false” allegation that the Proximal Origin paper “was initiated and orchestrated by Dr. Anthony Fauci to disprove, dismiss, and cover-up a lab origin” of SARS-CoV-2. He also denounced “attacks directed against science and scientists.” Some of Andersen’s coauthors who didn’t attend the hearing had even harsher words for the subcommittee. Edward Holmes, a virologist from Australia who was not at the hearing, called the oversight inquiry a “pathetic sham” in an interview with The Washington Post.
The hearing produced some legitimate insights, including a big batch of new public records, and many committee members conducted themselves civilly. Things did, however, occasionally devolve into grandstanding and partisan bickering. At one point, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) claimed that the intelligence community “believes that the origin of COVID-19 is from the lab, most of the intelligence community believes that and they have stated so.” Greene’s statement was clearly false—the intelligence community is split on the issue, with the Department of Energy and the FBI assessing that the virus most likely originated via some sort of laboratory incident, the National Intelligence Council and four other intelligence agencies assessing that it most likely originated via a natural zoonotic pathway, and two intelligence agencies, including the CIA, unable to make a determination.
Overall, Republican and Democratic members of the subcommittee came to the hearing with widely divergent agendas.
Republicans on the committee sought to lay out their case that the Proximal Origin paper was unduly influenced by government officials like Fauci, that it was marred by politics, and that it was meant to downplay the damaging possibility that Covid-19 may have emerged from a lab in Wuhan, China, with a history of US government funding. The title of Tuesday’s hearing was: “Investigating the Proximal Origin of a Cover Up.”
“This is not an attack on science. It is not an attack on peer review. And it’s not an attack on an individual,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), during the hearing. “We are examining whether government officials regardless of who they are unfairly and perhaps biasedly tipped the scales toward a preferred origin theory.”
“Overall,” he added, “we are examining whether scientific integrity was disregarded in favor of political expediency, maybe to conceal or diminish the government’s relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology…or maybe to avoid blaming China for any complicity intended or otherwise in a panademic that has killed more than 1 million Americans and has had a crushing effect on all humankind.”
Among other things, documents released by Republicans prior to the hearing included Slack-channel communications between some of the Proximal Origin authors in which they weighed the political and diplomatic implications should anyone accuse China of being the site of a lab release that led to Covid-19. These and other messages offer the public a further glimpse inside the private discussions that informed one of the best-read scientific papers of the Covid pandemic era.
“Given the shitshow that would happen if anyone serious accused the Chinese of even accidental release, my feeling is we should say that given there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we cannot possibly distinguish between natural evolution and escape so we are content with ascribing it to natural processes,” wrote Andrew Rambaut, a Proximal Origin author, in a February 2, 2020, Slack message.
“Yup,” replied Dr. Andersen, “I totally agree that that’s a very reasonable conclusion. Although I hate when politics is injected into science—but it’s impossible not to, especially given the circumstances.”
Earlier in the same Slack thread, Andersen wrote that “the main issue is that accidental release is in fact highly likely—it’s not some fringe theory. I absolutely agree that we can’t prove one way or the other, but we never will be able to—however, that doesn’t mean that by default the data is currently much more suggestive of a natural origin as opposed to e.g. passage. It is not—the furin cleavage site is very hard to explain”—referring to a feature of the virus that concerned the scientists at the time.
Rambaut has since told The New York Times what he meant by the above comment. “We had no evidence from the genome that it was anything other than a virus from nature,” he said. “Don’t go accusing people of things if there is no evidence.”
The Slack exchanges, and several other e-mails and messages unveiled in the Republican’s pre-hearing report, had never been made public before.
Democrats, meanwhile, used the hearing to defend Fauci and Collins from allegations that they may have engaged in misdeeds during the unfolding of the Proximal Origin saga. They put out their own report prior to the hearing in which they found that “there was no cover-up of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and no suppression of the lab leak theory on the parts of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins.” They also blasted what they described as the Republican majority’s backward-looking attack on science.
“There is currently no consensus on how this virus came to be, whether it came from a lab or from nature is still unknown,” said Representative Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.
“While the facts remain unknown, we should let our expert communities continue to do their jobs while we as lawmakers focus on policies to help prevent the next pandemic and save future lives,” he added. “But instead of doing that we are here interrogating researchers who wrote a paper three years ago so that my colleagues can push a partisan narrative and disparage our nation’s public health officials and institutions in the process.”
Near the end of the hearing, both Garry and Andersen confirmed that they had been consulted by the CIA and the FBI about Covid origins. Representative Wenstrup also pointed out that both men had received federal dollars for their work. “Congress appropriates those federal dollars,” he said. “We have a responsibility of oversight on behalf of our constituents and the very taxpayers that pay you. Sorry about that, but it’s our job, whether you like it or not, and I take it seriously.”
Wenstrup also broke some significant news. He reported that the National Archives and Records Administration was involved in an investigation into the conduct of Dr. David M. Morens, one of Anthony Fauci’s longtime deputies at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Late last month, Wenstrup’s subcommittee uncovered and released a 2021 e-mail sent by Morens to several of the Proximal Origin authors, including both Andersen and Garry, as well as a few of their colleagues. In the e-mail, which was part of a broader conversation about Covid origin issues, Morens said that he used a personal Gmail account as part of an apparent strategy to evade the Freedom of Information Act. He also expressed his intention to delete e-mails in order to avoid media scrutiny. In its letter, dated July 10, NARA officially requested that “NIH investigate these allegations of unauthorized disposition of NIH email records. Please provide a comprehensive report within 30 days detailing NIH’s findings.” It is unclear if the NIH has opened an investigation at this time.