Science takes back place in politics at first House hearing on origins of COVID-19 pandemic | Science

Some scientists and lawmakers might have hoped that this morning’s US congressional hearing on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic would transcend partisan politics and seriously investigate what has become a deeply divisive debate. But members of the House Select Subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic mostly hit on longstanding Republican or Democratic talking points, shedding no new light on the central question: Did SARS-CoV-2 jump naturally from animals to humans or the virus some leak from a lab in wuhan china?

“It was very disappointing and almost unbelievably detached from science,” says University of Arizona evolutionary biologist Michael Woroby, whose research was published in Science Support for a natural “zoonogenic” origin of the virus has been attacked by proponents of the lab leak scenario.

In his opening remarks at the first House hearing on the origins of the pandemic, subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R–OH) charged that his Democratic colleagues had “not asked” where the virus came from in the 3 years of the pandemic when they were in the majority. Wenstrup and his Republican colleagues spent much of the next 2.5 hours questioning four witnesses about the possibility that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which received some funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (NIAID) to study bat coronaviruses. They have repeatedly suggested that the possibility of a lab leak had been suppressed by high-ranking US government officials, including former NIAID head Anthony Fauci.

Ranking Member Raul Ruiz (D–CA) countered by criticizing the Republicans’ “panel of handpicked witnesses” — the three chosen by the majority all favored the lab leak scenario, and neither Fauci nor Worobey were invited to the hearing. Ruiz complained that “the hearing marks a troubling step down the path of letting extremism get in the way of an investigation that should be guided by science and facts.”

Ruiz said he was particularly “concerned” about one of the three witnesses selected by Republicans, journalist Nicholas Wade, who previously covered science for The New York Times, Natureand Science. Ruiz said that Wade’s 2014 book, A troubled heritage: Genes, race and human history, had been “applauded by white supremacists” and the MP charged that “his participation damages the credibility of this hearing”. Another Democrat on the hearing panel, Kweisi Mfume (D–MD), who is black, said it “burns me” that the forum included “someone with these kinds of beliefs.”

Wade, who has written extensively about what he sees as the mainstream media’s failure to investigate the origins of COVID-19 and has argued that scientists at WIV likely created SARS-CoV-2 by engineering a coronavirus in their collection, objected strongly in the blow of his character and the book. “I’m not racist,” Wade said. “I have nothing in common with the views of white supremacists.”

When the hearing went back to the beginning of COVID-19, it took a deep dive into some key scientific issues—all of which have received a lot of attention in the past. One is the undisputed fact that SARS-CoV-2 includes what is known as a furin cleavage site (FCS) in its surface protein, a feature that makes it easier for the virus to infect human cells. No bat coronavirus associated with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) yet found has FCS, and some scientists at the beginning of the pandemic expressed the idea that the virus had been created in the laboratory.

Wade focused on a now-infamous February 1, 2020 conference call in which Fauci overheard several of these concerned scientists discussing this possibility with coronavirus experts. Four of these scientists later published a paper in Nature Medicine which concluded “we do not believe that any kind of laboratory scenario is plausible.”

Wade described their change of heart, which leaked emails suggest happened by February 4, as a “strange thing”. And without providing any evidence, he linked the shift to a $9 million grant that two of his co-authors Nature Medicine comment received shortly from NIAID. On March 5, the subcommittee’s Republican majority released a memo that, based on newly disclosed emails, also alleged that Fauci “triggered” its drafting Nature Medicine paper.

But many scientists said the FCS of SARS-CoV-2 could have evolved naturally. The researchers found coronaviruses related to SARS that have mutations that move their surface proteins in this direction. They also note that members of the larger beta coronavirus genus, to which SARS-CoV-2 belongs, have these cleavage sites and have been found in bats.

Fauci also issued a statement on March 6 that said the Republican memo “contains false and misleading allegations” about his role in the controversial comment. “I did not ‘urge’ the writing of any publication that would ‘disprove’ the lab leak theory nor did I participate in the writing or editing of any part of Nature Medicine paper,” he said.

Kristian Andersen, who co-authored the paper and was one of the recipients of the $9 million grant, notes that an independent review panel scored the proposal in November 2019 and the NIAID board approved it in January 2020, before the conference call took position.

Representative Debbie Dingell (D–MI) urged her Republican colleagues not to “tarnish” public health officials by “redirecting baseless theories” that “Dr. Fauci and other health experts have blocked investigations into the origins of the pandemic.”

Witness Robert Redfield, a virologist who ran the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during former President Donald Trump’s administration, said he regretted not being invited to that Feb. 1 call. He claimed that because of its location the virus could have come from a laboratory in Wuhan – although several members on that call expressed similar views at the time. “They told me they wanted a single narrative,” said Redfield, who argued, “They lost the conversation.”

Wade also said the Wuhan lab had written in a 2018 Department of Defense grant proposal that it wanted to introduce an FCS to bat coronaviruses, a charge echoed by members of the subcommittee. He said that instead of a SARS-CoV-2 ancestor evolving this cleavage site, it was “easier to believe that the Wuhan researchers did exactly what they suggested and created the SARS-2 virus in their lab.”

But the proposal it refers to, which was submitted by the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance and included several partners, specifically says that these proposed experiments were intended to take place at the University of North Carolina (UNC), not WIV. “This section of the proposal was written by UNC colleagues in the US, where the work would have taken place,” says Peter Daszak, head of EcoHealth, who published a lengthy critique of other claims made at the hearing. “Significantly, the grant was not funded and the project was not done.”

Wade did not respond to a request from Science asking if he had evidence to support his claim that the WIV, not a US university, had proposed that the fission position be introduced.

Jamie Metzl, a lawyer and historian at the Atlantic Council think tank, was the third Republican witness to favor the lab leak case. Metzl, who says he is a lifelong Democrat, stressed that “the Chinese government has done everything in its power to prevent the kind of investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that is 3 years overdue and urgently needed ». Metzl, who has a large following on social media, urged the subcommittee not to do it “primarily for Dr. Fauci,” which he said would “serve the Chinese government improperly with a propaganda coup on a silver platter.”

The one witness called by the committee’s Democrats, Paul Auwaerter, said he was speaking on behalf of the Infectious Diseases Society of America — he is a past president — and not his employer, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Auwaerter, who has not previously spoken publicly about the debate, said at the time that he believed the evidence pointed more strongly to the zoonotic case “but that we have to watch both.”

At the end of the hearing, Metzl wrote Science that “there was a lot of political support” but said “it was good to hear both sides agree that laboratory origin is a distinct possibility and that we need a comprehensive investigation into all relevant provenance hypotheses”.

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