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As Republicans probe COVID’s origins, some see an attack on science; others say it’s long overdue

Dr. David Morens, a former top adviser to Dr. Anthony Fauci, appears during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on Capitol Hill.
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
Dr. David Morens, a former top adviser to Dr. Anthony Fauci, appears during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic hearing on Capitol Hill.

At the start of a hearing on COVID’s origins last month, Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup said that the committee was not out to attack science.

“Let me be clear, I support global health research; I support work that will make the world safer,” Wenstrup said. “Our concern is that this research, and research similar, does the opposite — it puts the world at the risk of a pandemic.”

In the three-hour exchange that followed, Wenstrup and his Republican colleagues excoriated Dr. Peter Daszak, a scientist at the center of the debate around COVID’s origins. Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a group that, prior to the onset of the pandemic, conducted research on bat coronaviruses. Some of that work was done in conjunction with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese-government laboratory that many Republicans believe may have started the pandemic.

Daszak was taken to task by both Republicans and Democrats for failing to comply with the terms of grants issued to EcoHealth. As a result of the ongoing hearings, EcoHealth Alliance recently had its access to federal grant funding suspended — with an eye toward debarring them from receiving future funding. Both Daszak and EcoHealth say they will appeal the decision.

On Monday, the committee will hear testimony from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who became the public face of science during the pandemic. Committee members are expected to grill Fauci on EcoHealth and other aspects of pandemic decision-making. They will also ask about e-mail exchanges between Daszak and one of Fauci’s senior advisors, Dr. David Morens. A subpoena by the committee recently turned up embarrassing exchanges between Morens and Daszak, in which they appeared to be trying to avoid public records laws.

Some in the scientific community see the hearings as the latest in an ongoing harassment campaign to discredit scientists who did their best to support the country during the worst pandemic in over a century.

"This select subcommittee could have tried to use its powers to try and understand the scientific evidence," say Michael Worobey, the head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. Instead, he says the subcommittee has chosen to interrogate scientists about grants and e-mails.

"It is a disservice to the American people to have a hearing on this topic but to not hear what the scientists who understand it best have to say," Worobey says.

The hearings are “absolutely atrocious,” says Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. “Parading prominent virologists in front of C-SPAN cameras to humiliate them is going to have long-term detrimental effects on science, biopreparedness and virology.”

But others, particularly those who believe that lax laboratory safety practices in China may have sparked the pandemic, say the hearings and the punishment of EcoHealth are appropriate.

Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who has called for the laboratory origins of COVID to be probed more closely, welcomed the scrutiny.

“EcoHealth Alliance should not receive any further federal funding until it turns over all exchanges with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and demonstrates that it can responsibly track research experiments paid for with taxpayer dollars,” she said over email.

Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies biotechnology and has investigated possible laboratory origins of the virus, agrees.

“Both Peter Daszak and EcoHealth have not lived up to the standards of U.S. government grantees,” he says.

A debate as old as the pandemic

Daszak and EcoHealth have been at the center of the debates of COVID’s origins since the very beginning of the pandemic. As an expert in both bat coronaviruses and the work done at the Wuhan laboratory, he was often quoted by media in the pandemic's early days. He also helped organize a letter in the Lancet that labeled the idea of a laboratory origin for the COVID virus as a “conspiracy theory.”

The committee has probed the relationship between EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured).
The committee has probed the relationship between EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured).

But Daszak’s connections to the Wuhan Institute of Virology brought scrutiny, particularly from the political right. Although he says his work never involved “gain-of-function” research to make coronaviruses more contagious in humans, journalists uncovered a proposal for a grant to conduct gain-of-function work in 2018. The grant was denied, but many pointed to the application as evidence of a cover-up.

In its hearing with Daszak in early May, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic revealed new evidence that EcoHealth had not properly maintained an existing grant with NIH to fund work at the Wuhan Institute. Among other infractions, the committee showed evidence that EcoHealth had failed to properly upload an update on the grant to NIH servers, and that it had failed to obtain lab reports from Wuhan about the work being done there with NIH money.

In response, the Department of Health and Human Services suspended funding to EcoHealth and has proposed barring the organization and Daszak from federal grants. Debarment generally lasts three years or less, but can be extended depending on the circumstances.

Daszak says that both he and EcoHealth will fight the suspension. “The people who are promoting the idea that there’s some sort of coverup and backroom deals have done a great job of presenting every little snippet they can,” Daszak said in an interview with NPR. But, he says, the allegations against his group are without merit:

“Is there something illegal or unethical that EcoHealth Alliance has done? No way,” he says.

‘We were being attacked’

In addition to the scrutiny it has brought to EcoHealth’s funding, the committee has also probed communications between EcoHealth’s Daszak and Morens, a senior advisor to Fauci.

Through a subpoena, the committee obtained emails from Morens that appear to show the two joking about taking a cut from EcoHealth grants and evading public records requests. At one point, Morens wrote: "I learned from our FOIA lady here how to make emails disappear after I'm FOIA'd."

In a hearing on May 22, Morens said that the emails were part of a misunderstanding because his personal email and NIH email were on the same phone.

“I was thinking I was communicating in private…Not as a government employee but as a private citizen,” he told committee members.

Daszak says that Morens never directly supervised EcoHealth grants, and that the pair wasn’t conducting official communications via Gmail.

“David Morens was not and is not involved in the management of any of EcoHealth Alliance’s NIH grants or awards,” he says. “He’s been accused of doing NIH business with us via Gmail, and that’s simply untrue.”

Both Daszak and Morens maintain that the correspondence came during a dark time for Daszak, who found himself at the center of numerous conspiracy theories.

“We were being attacked; we had people breaking into our offices, we had threats — my children’s names had been put up on a 4Chan kill list,” Daszak says.

In the hearing, Morens says much of the correspondence was meant to help lift the mood of Daszak, who he counts as a personal friend.

“I was trying to help a friend by cheering him up with black humor and things like that,” he says.

‘We should still be asking very tough questions’

Monday’s hearing with Fauci will likely see the former NIAID director grilled about the emails between Morens and Daszak and about EcoHealth’s suspended grant. Some Republicans may also probe whether Fauci himself profited in any way from the pandemic.

Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene has promoted far-out theories about the origins of COVID, including the unfounded idea that Anthony Fauci played a role in the creation of the virus.
The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im / The Washington Post
The Washington Post
Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene has promoted far-out theories about the origins of COVID, including the unfounded idea that Anthony Fauci played a role in the creation of the virus.

That questioning feeds into a conspiracy theory that EcoHealth was somehow doing Fauci’s bidding to seed the pandemic. It’s an unfounded claim that Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene openly hinted at during the May 22 hearing: “I personally believe that Peter Daszak at EcoHealth had a lot to do with the fact that COVID was raging,” Greene said. Greene has previously promoted conspiracy theories around COVID vaccines, called the coronavirus a “manufactured plague” and called for the firing of Anthony Fauci.

Metzl says that he doesn’t believe such far-out theories about COVID’s origins. But he nevertheless feels that the hearings are appropriate and have turned up evidence that deserves public attention.

“Tony Fauci [is] not directly responsible for COVID-19,” he says. “We should still be asking very tough questions. We should still be investigating everything.”

But Worobey says the hearings are creating a political football out of a vital scientific question — understanding where COVID came from and how it spread. He says the evidence is "overwhelming" that COVID began in nature and then was transmitted to humans at a handful of live animal markets in Wuhan.

Now another animal-borne virus, the H5N1 bird flu, is spreading through the U.S., Worobey says — but "no one's talking about what should we be doing to prevent these ticking time bombs?"

Hotez says he fears that the hearings are doing little more than damaging the reputation of scientists to score political points. The committee “said on their official Twitter website, ‘get your popcorn ready,’” he says. “They are not even pretending this is anything other than political theater or Fox News soundbites.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.