Support is growing in Congress for a probe of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, an effort that could pit Democratic lawmakers against the Biden administration as China hawks draw new attention to the theory that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab.
It’s not yet clear what form the congressional inquiry would take, particularly whether the Covid origin question would be part of a broader review of the global crisis and the U.S. response. But the ongoing discussions on Capitol Hill represent a remarkable bipartisan agreement that Congress should investigate the origins of a virus that has killed 3.5 million people worldwide, including nearly 600,000 Americans.
Democrats had previously dismissed the lab leak theory as a GOP talking point. But lawmakers from both parties are giving the scenario renewed consideration after The Wall Street Journal reported that three scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in November 2019 after developing symptoms consistent with Covid-19 — just before the virus spread across China.
“As we analyze what went wrong and what we can do in the future, we have to have answers to these questions, too,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate’s health committee. “And I think you’re going to see Congress addressing some of these matters as well. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”
The talks, which center on the Senate’s intelligence and health committees, are likely to ramp up pressure on the White House to address building frustration with its broader China strategy. Hawks in Congress, as well as former Trump administration officials, say the administration is moving too slowly in rolling out a clear policy for dealing with China. For the first time, Democrats are open to entertaining their argument that the Biden administration needs to exert diplomatic pressure on Beijing to release data from the Wuhan lab.
Senior Biden administration officials have repeatedly said that any investigation into the origins of the virus should be spearheaded by an independent, international group such as the World Health Organization. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was the latest to press that argument in remarks Tuesday before a WHO ministerial meeting. But the WHO’s first stab at an investigation — which resulted in a report in March that said the lab leak theory was “extremely unlikely” — was stymied because China would not share key lab records and data.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said he had asked U.S. intelligence agencies to “redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion” on the origins of Covid-19 and to report back in 90 days. He added that a preliminary report by U.S. intelligence agencies earlier this month “coalesced around two likely scenarios,” a laboratory accident or human contact with an infected animal.
“I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China. I have also asked that this effort include work by our National Labs and other agencies of our government to augment the Intelligence Community’s efforts,” Biden said in the statement. “And I have asked the Intelligence Community to keep Congress fully apprised of its work.”
The president also said the United States would continue working with other countries “to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation.”
Those who have pushed for the Biden administration to sign onto a U.S. investigation point to the Wall Street Journal article — and a recent letter from 18 prominent scientists pushing for a more thorough inquiry — as evidence that the WHO probe did not give enough consideration to the lab leak theory. But there are limits to what Congress can do, especially when it comes to a foreign country’s internal affairs. Lawmakers are unlikely to get any new intelligence or evidence from China, but they can seek documents and intelligence reports from the executive branch.
“It’s the Chinese Communist Party that has not been transparent and allowed a deeper understanding,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “They interfered with the World Health Organization’s investigation. They haven’t been transparent from the very beginning.”
In January, the Trump administration issued a fact sheet saying that several researchers inside the Wuhan institute became sick with symptoms similar to Covid-19 in November 2019, that the lab was conducting research on a bat coronavirus that is the closest known relative of SARS-CoV-2, and that the institute collaborated with the Chinese military.
“We were running down the clock to the end of the administration, and in the final days Washington’s focus was on the events of Jan. 6. So we were limited in time and political attention,” said David Feith, former deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under former President Donald Trump, referring to the administration’s efforts to make public information it had gathered about the Wuhan lab. “Now, the Biden folks have had several months to think this through, and I do hope that they decide to release more information, work with allies and press Beijing with greater energy. I’m concerned that they aren’t really doing enough.”
Administration officials think any investigation would have a better chance of succeeding if it was run by an outside organization such as WHO, which would allow countries to collectively pressure Beijing to cooperate, those sources said.
“We are and we have repeatedly called for the [World Health Organization] to support an expert-driven evaluation of the pandemic’s origins that is free from interference and politicization,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
People who want the administration to take on the investigation itself say the U.S. has more resources and diplomatic might than WHO — which cannot sanction its members — and that the government should tap on its intelligence apparatus to study the matter further.
It’s unclear how the Biden intelligence community is handling the issue. In April, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers in a Worldwide Threats hearing that the intelligence community does not know “exactly where, when or how Covid-19 virus was transmitted initially.”
“The Biden administration has been very forthright in saying that both theories are in play. But it’s very hard to investigate and it gets harder over time,” said Andy Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for biodefense under President Barack Obama and fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks. “The intelligence community has never really considered this kind of collection a priority. The big question is does the government of China know the answer to this question? Do they have the blood samples from those lab researchers? They could do their own analysis. Have they done that?”
Kaine said the Senate HELP Committee, which has jurisdiction over public health matters, is “interested in looking at [the] big picture of what went wrong and how we can prepare for the next” pandemic. “Understanding the origin and whether there was any nefarious activity in China is all part of that,” Kaine added.
The panel’s chair, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), declined to comment specifically on the lab leak theory but said “we’re exploring what we’re going to do.” The Senate Intelligence Committee is already examining the scenario.
“The health committee is interested in knowing the origin of Covid-19. That’s not triggered by a press report. Nobody knows the validity of the press report,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the health panel and a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, said in a brief interview.
“But I think it’s absolutely essential that we understand what we can about the origin — and the opinions on that are split about 50-50 right now,” Burr added. He noted that the Intelligence Committee would focus on the “cause,” while the the HELP Committee would examine a potential “solution.”
Republicans have long pushed the lab leak theory, often drawing scorn from Democrats. But GOP lawmakers say their concerns have been validated in light of the Wall Street Journal story. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the top Republican on the House’s select committee on Covid-19, earlier this week called on the panel’s chair, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), to open an investigation into the pandemic’s origins.
A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment on Scalise’s request, but noted that the House Science Committee intends to pursue a similar probe. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are also investigating the matter.
If the U.S. were to conclude that the virus originated in a lab and that the Chinese government was concealing it from the rest of the world, there would be “devastating consequences” for the U.S.-China relationship, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview.
But the U.S. might never know for sure — or ever be able to find out. Some senators are skeptical about whether a congressional investigation could crack the code; and Democrats in particular viewed Republicans’ obsession with the lab leak theory as a way to distract from Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
“Sometimes we think we’ve solved a problem by empaneling an inquiry. You may never have the information necessary to know the source of this virus,” Murphy said. “And while that question is really important, there are other really important questions about why the United States didn’t stand up an adequate response that we need to deal with as well.”
Apart from an investigation, Congress is already flexing its purse strings on the matter. Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously adopted a measure from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) that would prohibit U.S. funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.