3 questions experts say need to be asked about pandemic’s origin

Even skeptics of the Wuhan lab leak theory want more transparency into experiments that make pathogens more infectious or dangerous

This aerial view shows the P4 lab on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s central Hubei province on May 27, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
This aerial view shows the P4 lab on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China’s central Hubei province on May 27, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted June 23, 2021 at 5:31am

Biosecurity experts are pushing Congress to investigate a theory that the virus that causes COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, saying important information could be uncovered even without the help of Chinese authorities.

“Many threads of investigation are available in the U.S. and would be accessible to a congressional inquiry with subpoena power,” said Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebright, who believes the pandemic resulted from a lab accident.

Ebright said Congress should do more to investigate a U.S. nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance, which partnered with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and scrutinize several federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, that funded the nonprofit.

“An important point is that no cooperation from China, or the WHO, or any other non-U.S. entity, is needed to pursue these leads,” Ebright said, referring to the World Health Organization.

Congressional Democrats’ interest appears muted as they wait for intelligence agencies to produce a report by late August that President Joe Biden ordered on the pandemic’s origins.

Although NIH Director Francis Collins said in a recent radio interview that he would answer questions in a classified briefing for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees his agency, a GOP committee aide said a date has not been set.

Even skeptics of the lab leak theory want more transparency into experiments, known as “gain of function” research, that change pathogens to make them more infectious or dangerous. The legislative branch’s insight into the Wuhan Institute of Virology may be limited since Congress does not have access to the lab’s internal records. But it does oversee U.S. funding and oversight, or lack thereof, over this type of research.

“Governments haven’t been able to keep up because it’s moving so quickly,” Jaime Yassif, a Nuclear Threat Initiative global biological policy expert, said about the research.

Until this year, congressional scrutiny of this type of risky research and lab security was rare, according to CQ Roll Call archives that show only seven committee hearings from 1995 to 2020 discussing gain-of-function research.

Congress and health officials tended to focus more on naturally arising pathogens because pandemics historically occurred that way and the chances of a lab accident seemed more remote. 

“Congress only pays attention to stuff when things go wrong,” said Gregory Koblentz, a George Mason University biodefense expert. 

Here are a few questions about gain-of-function research that experts say Congress, armed with the power to demand records and testimony, could dig into.

What responsibility does NIH have in overseeing risky research?

GOP interest in the pandemic’s origins centers on NIH funding for research at the Wuhan lab through EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit research organization that connects them.

Republicans could score political points by casting Chinese researchers as a national security threat and trying to implicate Anthony Fauci, head of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans asked NIH in a June 10 letter about the size of NIH research grants and whether EcoHealth Alliance answered questions from the agency after NIH suspended a funding award in early 2020. 

That follows a more comprehensive letter digging into the connections between the Wuhan Institute and NIH that GOP panel members sent in March. NIAID did not respond to a request for comment.

Questions also were raised about communications between some top scientists who may have prematurely debunked the lab leak hypothesis and Fauci and Collins, as revealed in Fauci’s emails that BuzzFeed obtained. The conversations included a private phone meeting in February 2020. Some of these top scientists, including Erasmus Medical Center researchers Marion Koopmans and Ron Fouchier, are connected to gain-of-function research.

“I do not think that it would be a stretch to say that some of the people who would’ve had the most to lose if Covid-19 were to be connected to gain-of-function research were in attendance at this Feb 1, 2020 call, for which the post-meeting emails were largely redacted,” tweeted Alina Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

How much of this research is occurring?

Congress could provide more transparency into the process the government uses to determine whether researchers should be allowed to tinker with potentially devastating viruses.

“HHS and NIH can be more transparent about the process used to review research proposals that might involve gain-of-function research,” said Koblentz of George Mason University. 

A committee known as Health and Human Services Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight, or “P3CO,” was put in place when a funding pause on gain-of-function research was lifted in 2017.

The moratorium was in place for three years after biosecurity lapses and concerns about studies that made the H5N1 bird flu more contagious, but it ended when the NIH decided the P3CO process was rigorous. 

The P3CO reviews are confidential, so the committee’s reasoning for approving certain research is private. It’s not clear whether NIH grants to Wuhan underwent this process. 

Privately funded research through corporations or nonprofits is not subject to this review.

Is more coronavirus gain-of-function research happening globally now than before the pandemic? With unprecedented interest in coronaviruses and a surge of investment in biotechnology with little oversight, it’s possible, Koblentz said.

“There have been tens of thousands of scientific articles just in the last year and a half from all over the world. We have much less insight into where the research is being conducted at this point than we did previously,” he said, adding it would be “a useful exercise” for Congress “to get informed about this research, where it’s being conducted, and by whom.”

Congressional investigators could tap researchers with experience in detecting whether a virus is engineered.

But one challenge may be that this forensic work to determine whether a virus is engineered isn’t developing as quickly as genetic engineering itself.

“Our ability to read, write and edit DNA and RNA is evolving rapidly,” Yassif said.

Do top scientists have a groupthink issue?

Experts traditionally focused on the risks of a pandemic emerging from an animal. But while past pandemics spread through zoonotic spillover, there are only a few pandemics to learn from.

“We have really very few pandemics to work with in our historical experience,” Harvard infectious diseases epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, a critic of gain-of-function research, said at a Brookings Institution event this month.

“One could argue that the potential for catastrophic outcomes is potentially higher when humans are involved. If you have a human-engineered pathogen … if that spreads globally, it could cause more harm than a naturally emerging pathogen,” Yassif said.

Some lab leak theory proponents go further, alleging conflicts of interest motivated some scientists to unfairly shape the early narrative toward zoonotic spillover.

“A congressional investigation may not be in a position to answer directly where the virus came from. It could determine why the vast majority of the U.S., and indeed global scientific establishment, acted to deny and shut down any discussion of a lab-leak hypothesis, thereby providing China with time, if needed, to search for and delete any data that might have directly implicated a lab leak, if this indeed happened,” said Nikolai Petrovsky, an endocrinologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who is a critic of gain-of-function research. 

But without buy-in from Democrats in the majority, the House GOP investigation will sputter. While both Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Health Subcommittee Chair Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., expressed support for an investigation into the pandemic’s origins, the full committee has not announced an inquiry.

Similarly, the Science, Space and Technology Committee won’t pursue an investigation, a congressional aide said, contradicting what Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chair Bill Foster, D-Ill., said earlier this month. 

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has called for investigations in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees, but last week he said he has not heard back from the Democratic committee chairs.