Two world-renowned virologists appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday and defended their findings that the coronavirus pandemic was naturally occurring, telling skeptical Republicans that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci had no influence on a scientific paper they wrote for that effect
The document is at the center of unsubstantiated claims by Republicans that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Francis S. Collins, then director of the National Institutes of Health, tried to suppress the idea that a lab leak caused the pandemic. Testifying virologists, Kristian G. Andersen of Scripps Research and Robert F. Garry Jr. of Tulane University School of Medicine, were two of the paper’s five authors.
Tuesday’s hearing before the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic produced no new evidence to further the Republican claims. The hearing was titled “Investigating the proximal origin of a cover-up,” a play on the article title, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, which was published in the journal Nature Medicine in March 2020.
“The claim that Dr. Fauci prompted the writing of ‘Proximal Origin’ to refute the lab leak is not true,” said Dr. Andersen.
The Republican allegations center on a series of email exchanges that included Dr. Fauci, who at the time headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Collins; and Dr. Jeremy Farrar, then director of the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation that funds health research. Dr. Farrar is now the chief scientific officer of the World Health Organization.
Republicans have used the emails to suggest that scientists studying the origins of the virus, after originally expressing the idea that it could have been designed in a laboratory, changed their minds due to input from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins, even during a February. On January 1, 2020, teleconference that included the authors of the proximal origin study.
The scientists have said their views changed after days of intense work, which included studying features of the virus that have also been identified in related coronaviruses in other species and consulting with virologists who had more experience studying coronaviruses.
Republicans have repeatedly claimed that Dr. Fauci called the February 1 call and pushed for the article to be published as a way to stifle public discussion of a potential lab leak. But Dr. Andersen and Dr. Garry testified that Dr. Farrar had made the call. And Dr. Andersen said that Dr. Fauci had, in fact, encouraged airing any concerns about a lab leak.
“Specifically, I remember him saying that if you think it came from a lab, you should write it as a peer-reviewed paper,” Dr. Andersen said in a transcribed interview with the subcommittee, recounting a phone call between the two on January 31, 2020.
Dr. Farrar, who was not credited as a co-author on the study, faced scrutiny for suggesting in a mid-February 2020 email that the authors change a sentence that said it was “unlikely” that the virus had emerged. through laboratory manipulation. to one who said it was “unlikely” that the virus had arisen in that way. A WHO spokesman on Tuesday declined to answer questions about Dr. Farrar’s role.
In a post-hearing email, Dr. Fauci wrote that the notion that he had tried to disprove the lab leak theory was “categorically incorrect.” He added: “This was confirmed several times during the hearing by two highly respected scientists who testified to this effect under oath.”
Sometimes the audience caught the air of competing science lessons. Dr. Andersen often began his responses with the phrase: “I think it’s important to understand…”. Republican members of the panel tried in vain to lecture virologists, sometimes making completely incorrect claims.
“I’m making a scientific point here,” the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican and a podiatrist, said at one point.
After the hearing, Mr. Wenstrup shook Dr. Andersen’s hand and said that he hoped Dr. Andersen felt that the hearing was professional. Dr. Andersen said that he thought he was. But beneath the politeness, the tension between the Republicans and the scientists was palpable.
Data related to the clustering of human cases around a market in Wuhan, China; the genetic diversity of viruses there; and the presence of raccoon dog DNA in the same location as the virus’s genetic material have strengthened the view among many scientists that the virus arose from the illegal wildlife trade in China.
But Republicans repeatedly suggested Tuesday that because so much is unknown about the work of Chinese researchers, a lab leak was indeed possible. They theorized that US officials wanted to minimize that possibility because they wanted to avoid being blamed for funding Chinese research, and that the scientists wanted to avoid alienating their Chinese counterparts.
They cited in particular a Slack message in February 2020 from one of the eventual authors of the proximal origin study, Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh.
“Given the shit show that would happen if someone seriously accused the Chinese of even accidental release,” he wrote, “I think we should say that since there is no evidence of a purpose-built virus, we cannot distinguish between natural evolution and escape, so we are content to attribute it to natural processes.”
When asked about the comment, Dr. Rambaut said in an email Tuesday that he had been reluctant to speculate that the coronavirus had escaped from a lab because there was no sign it had ever been in a lab.
“We had no genome evidence that it was anything other than a virus from nature,” he said, adding: “Don’t accuse people of things if there’s no evidence.”