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Senate Hearing Probes Covid Origin Theories

State of the Union: One scientist claimed that there is no evidence for a natural origin of Covid-19.
Rand Paul with Gary Peters
Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Senate Homeland Security Committee held a hearing Tuesday during which senators and witnesses debated the two prevailing theories on the genesis of Covid-19—that the disease was the result of a wet market contamination or a lab leak in Wuhan, China. 

Four witnesses testified at the hearing: Gregory Koblentz, associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, Robert F. Garry, professor and associate dean of the School of Medicine at Tulane University, Steven Quay, chief executive officer at Atossa Therapeutics, Inc., and Richard Ebright, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and laboratory director at Waksman Institute of Microbiology.

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In his opening statement, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the chairman of the committee, opined that investigating Covid’s origins is an essential task for ensuring the United States’ preparedness for future threats to public health and national security. 

Ranking member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) also said in his opening statement, 

Understanding the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic is not just about assigning blame—it's about learning from what happened so we can prevent future, more deadly pandemics and the negative societal consequences associated with them. My goal is to uncover the truth, implement necessary safeguards, and prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again.

The four witnesses then gave their own opening statements. Koblentz and Garry both argued that Covid-19 was a result of a natural zoonotic “spillover” event at the Wuhan wet market, while Quay and Ebright defended the lab leak theory. 

Throughout the hearing, Garry in particular was grilled by the committee senators over a paper he co-wrote in Nature Medicine entitled “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2” in March of 2020. The paper has been accessed nearly six million times on Nature Medicine’s website alone since its publication, and was extremely impactful in the early days of Covid response. 

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In the paper, Garry argued against the notion that Covid-19 could have come from a lab in Wuhan, although, at the hearing, he claimed that “I am first and foremost a scientist and I will adhere to the scientific method. So I will continue to evaluate the evidence and reassess the validity of my scientific hypotheses…. I look forward to continuing the scientific debate in peer reviewed materials with other scientists, including those here today.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) questioned Garry on the upwards of $25 million he has received in federal grants following the publication of his proximal origins paper, accusing the scientist of being motivated by money rather than doing science for the common good. Garry was visibly uncomfortable during this exchange.

Johnson proceeded to hold up a stack of over 50 redacted pages from more than 4,000 of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s documented NIH emails that his staff had to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain. Johnson said, “In terms of the cover-up, my guess is the smoking gun exists somewhere under these heavy redactions.” Garry did not respond.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) in particular took issue with Garry’s paper, which Ebright, in his opening statement, had called “an opinion piece.”

“You said at the time that definitively SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct,” Sen. Hawley said, also noting that the FBI and Energy Department have both “concluded otherwise.”

“On the basis of this, Dr. Fauci and others cited this piece and went out to use it to mobilize our own government to censor people who ask questions,” Hawley went on. “People lost their jobs because of this. Do you regret being part of this effort, this propaganda effort?” 

“I was simply just writing a paper about our scientific opinions about where this virus came from,” Garry replied. 

“Oh no, you weren’t,” Hawley retorted. He then read portions of Garry’s private email correspondence into the congressional record. “February 2nd, 2020, you wrote, ‘I really can’t think of a plausible, natural scenario where you can get from the bat virus, or one very similar to it, to this…. I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature. It’s stunning. Of course, in the lab, it would be easy.’”

Paul also emphasized the discrepancies of what leading scientists and federal officials said in the years since the pandemic began to the public versus what they said in private/ “The cover-up went beyond public statements,” he said. “Federal agencies and key officials withheld and continue to conceal crucial information from both Congress and the public.”

The senators turned to Quay and Ebright to uncover the scientific evidence behind the lab leak theory. In his opening statement, Ebright went so far as to say there is “no—zero—secure evidence [that] points to Covid’s natural origins.”

According to Ebright, the Wuhan lab had obtained SARS viruses that had a “high pandemic potential” four years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and just one year earlier had performed research that genetically modified the viruses “that match in detail the features of SARS-CoV-2.”

Ebright also noted that the “smoking gun” evidence for a lab origin of Covid-19 came from a separate EcoHealth proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), that proposed the same feature of a “furin cleavage site” in the virus. Ebright said that “SARS-CoV-2 is the only one of more than 800 known SARS viruses that possess a furin cleavage site.”

Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth, downplayed the degree of Chinese cooperation in its DARPA proposal, falsely claiming that the experiments would take place in a North Carolina research lab “under very high safety conditions,” Quay revealed.

Yet “the marginal comments in drafts—that were only obtained through [Freedom of Information Act requests]—said that Wuhan would lead the project since it was going to be ‘cheaper’ and ‘faster,’” Quay added.

Ebright also used his hearing appearance to argue against gain-of-function research at large—a topic that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) brought up in his questions to the witnesses. Ebright said, “It’s important to emphasize that the research in question has no—zero—civilian practical applications.” 

He continued, “Gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens is not used and does not contribute to the development of vaccines, and is not used and does not contribute to the development of drugs.”

Paul asked Ebright at one point whether his support for the lab leak hypothesis was one of a “crazy Republican partisan,” given that proponents of the theory are often accused of being “right-wing conspiracy theorists.”

“I’m a registered Democrat. I voted for Biden. I had a Biden sign on my lawn and had a Biden bumper sticker,” Ebright announced, earning laughs from the audience gathered in the hearing room.