Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on Wednesday said he has “no doubt” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Dr. Anthony Fauci funded gain-of-function research that likely resulted in the creation of COVID-19 and its subsequent leak.
The hearing included testimony related to the lab leak theory as a plausible explanation as the origin of COVID-19 and how the theory was shut down early in the pandemic in favor of narratives that COVID-19 had zoogenic — or natural — origins.
Committee members and witnesses also debated the future of gain-of-function research.
Other witnesses Wednesday included: Jamie Metzl, Ph.D., J.D., senior fellow at the Atlantic Council; Nicholas Wade, former New York Times science editor and former deputy editor of Nature; and Paul G. Auwaerter, M.D., MBA, clinical director in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
The hearing followed the subcommittee’s release of a memo revealing that key NIH figures, including Fauci, helped persuade virologists to write an influential article squelching the theory that COVID-19 may have leaked from a lab and asserting the virus evolved naturally.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last month determined SARS CoV-2 most likely emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China — a theory later endorsed by FBI Director Christopher Wray. These developments helped lead to a Senate vote to declassify U.S. intelligence documents on the origins of COVID-19.
Gain-of-function research ‘caused the greatest pandemic our world has seen’
Some of the witnesses called for gain-of-function research to be slowed down, paused or stopped entirely.
Redfield testified that the “COVID-19 pandemic presents a case study on the potential dangers of such research,” and said, “we should call for a moratorium on gain-of-function research until we have a broader debate and we come to a consensus as a community about the value of [such] research.”
“I think the people that are advocates for gain-of-function research do believe that by doing this research, they somehow get ahead of the curve,” said Redfield. “I’m of the point of view that we don’t need to make pathogens more transmissible or more pathogenic in order to get ahead of the curve.
He told the subcommittee that as CDC director, he temporarily shut down the U.S. biological research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, even though this decision “wasn’t very popular.”
“Our inspection showed that they were cutting corners in their biosecurity requirements … and so I shut the lab down for four to six months until they corrected their biosecurity,” Redfield said.
When asked whether gain-of-function research had ever stopped a pandemic, Redfield said, “No. On the contrary, I think it probably caused the greatest pandemic our world has seen.”
He said he personally did not see any “tangible benefits” to gain-of-function research at this time.
Auwaerter disagreed, telling the committee that “a robust public health infrastructure and global coordination are essential for surveillance to identify, track and contain potential threats” and called for “research capacity improvements to biosafety” at “biosafety level-four [BSL4] facilities.”
He added that some types of gain-of-function research “can help understand possible human pathogen interactions, assess the likelihood of an emerging pandemic and inform preparedness efforts, including surveillance and medical countermeasure developments.”
Metzl said it would be “a grave error” if biological research facilities were shut down, but asked “what are the guardrails?”
In an October 2022 interview with The Defender, Dr. Francis Boyle, JD, Ph.D., argued that all BSL3 and BSL4 labs should be shut down “immediately and effectively,” and that “otherwise, there is going to be another leak.”
‘We don’t have a smoking gun’ — yet
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), chair of the subcommittee, opened the proceedings by saying, “We are here today … to ask the fundamental question that this body failed to ask three years ago: Where did COVID-19 come from?”
Wenstrup said that question is “fundamental to helping us predict and prevent future pandemics, protecting our health and national security and preparing the United States for the future.”
He also said the question must be investigated “thoroughly, responsibly and honestly,” adding:
“We don’t have a smoking gun. In three years, there’s been no track found to prove that COVID-19 evolved naturally from an animal or a mammal or a tick to become highly infectious to humans.
“The truth is we don’t know the origins of COVID-19 yet for sure.”
Ranking member Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), however, described the hearing as “a concerning step down the path of letting extremism get in the way of inquiry that should be led by science and facts,” stating that evidence regarding the origins of COVID-19 “remains inconclusive.”
“We must allow our scientists and intelligence communities to gather evidence without politicization, extreme partisan rhetoric or conspiratorial accusations that vilify our nation’s public health experts,” Ruiz said.
Metzl said that “getting to this point has required a great deal of effort by a small but tireless, self-motivated and highly capable community of experts from around the world who have refused to be bullied into silence.”
‘It looked like this virus was engineered’
Wenstrup, as part of his opening statement, lent support to theories that COVID-19 was engineered and subsequently leaked from a lab.
“The genome of COVID-19 is inconsistent with expectations and is unique for its group of viruses,” he said, adding that it has “unique characteristics” that are “optimized for human cells” and which “made it very infectious to humans.”
Wade, who has written extensively on the issue of COVID-19’s origins, told the committee that if the virus had emerged naturally, it should have left many telltale signs in the environment — but none have appeared yet, despite the Chinese government’s keen interest in finding them.
“Without such evidence, the natural origins idea has grown steadily weaker,” Wade said.
Redfield testified that since his “initial analysis of the data” early in the pandemic, “I came to believe, and I still believe today, that it indicates COVID-19 more likely was the result of an accidental lab leak than a result of a natural spillover event.”
He based his view on the biology of the virus, its “high infectivity for human-to-human transmission” and on “unusual actions in and around Wuhan in the fall of 2019.”
“It looked like this virus was engineered,” said Redfield. “We know the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting gain-of-function research on novel coronaviruses.”
According to Wade, this work was being conducted “under seriously inadequate safety conditions, and we know that viruses escaped from labs all the time. Clearly, lab leak has to be a strong possibility.”
Wenstrup noted that the Wuhan Institute has a poor track record when it comes to biosafety and was conducting this research at only a BSL2 lab — “described as the ‘Wild West’ by Dr. Jeremy Farrar, a virologist from the U.K. and now chief scientist for the World Health Organization.”
Records show the NIH allowed American entities to “conduct risky research on novel coronaviruses” at the Wuhan lab.
Metzl repeated Wenstrup’s statement that “there is no smoking gun” proving the lab leak theory, but added, “The growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a gun that is, at the very least, warm to the touch.”
All four witnesses agreed the lab leak theory is not a conspiracy, with Auwaerter, the sole witness called in by the Democratic minority, adding that “It has been approached as such.”
The witnesses also uniformly agreed there was insufficient evidence available in early 2020 to dismiss the theory outright.
Redfield noted that not only was this theory nevertheless dismissed by many scientists and the media early in the pandemic but its proponents were also attacked.
“The most upsetting thing to me was the Baltimore Sun calling me a racist because I said this came from a Wuhan lab,” Redfield said.
‘Single narrative’ on COVID origins ‘antithetical to science’
Addressing the document memo released Sunday by the subcommittee, Wenstrup said it highlights “new evidence that suggests Fauci promoted the drafting of a publication that would disprove the lab leak theory,” and that evidence was “skewed” to achieve this goal.
Hundreds of news organizations cited the article to assert that the lab leak theory was a “conspiracy theory.”
“Why did Dr. Fauci work so hard for just one of those theories?” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked, referring to the natural origins theory.
Wade testified that “the campaign to discredit [the] lab leak began on the evening of Jan. 31, 2020, when Fauci received an email from four virologists” who concluded that COVID-19 “could not have been made in nature.”
“Fauci was probably not too pleased to hear that the virus might have escaped from research that his agency funded,” said Wade.
“A strange thing happened to the virologists’ conclusion within four days,” he added, noting that they suddenly changed their minds — even though no new evidence materialized during this time.
According to Jordan, “There’s 9 million reasons why they changed their mind,” pointing out that three months after their about-face, the four scientists received a $9 million grant from Fauci. Jordan said the subcommittee likely will call the authors of the paper to testify.
Redfield noted that while he had been in communication with Fauci in January 2020, he was then “excluded” from further calls discussing the origins of COVID-19, even though he was CDC director at the time.
“I was quite upset as the CDC director that I was excluded [from] those discussions,” Redfield said. He said he believed he was excluded because he had “a different point of view.”
“I was told they made a decision that they would keep this confidential until they came up with a single narrative, which I will argue is antithetical to science,” said Redfield. “Science never selects a single narrative.”
“When you have a group of people that decide there could only be one point of view, that’s problematic,” Redfield said. “They squashed any debate.”
Addressing the “Proximal Origins” paper, Redfield described it as “an inaccurate paper that basically was part of [the] narrative they were creating.”
Redfield also told the committee, “There’s no doubt that NIH was funding gain-of-function research,” and that the research also received funding from the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Wade testified that the media was then used “to establish the natural origin theory”:
“If the evidence for lab leak is so strong, why do so many people still believe the virus came from nature? The reason is that the natural origin camp got its story out first — always a big help. It very successfully painted ‘lab leak’ as a conspiracy theory before anyone had publicly proposed it.
“The national media swallowed the natural origin story unskeptically, and once committed to it, failed to report important contrary evidence … Journalists in particular, it seems to me, failed on their job by failing to check out the virologists’ self-serving claims.”
These pressures extended to the academic and scientific community, according to Metzl. He testified that “All of the members of that community were aggressively trying to place scientific papers with journals and had zero success. So, there was a wall that was extremely difficult to get over.”
“When a small handful of us in the earliest days of the pandemic began raising the possibility of a possible lab origin, there [were] ferociously strong headwinds. There was this manufactured consensus.
“I’m a lifelong Democrat, I consider myself a progressive person, but I kept digging. I couldn’t find the justification for these strong arguments, calling people like me, investigating, looking into pandemic origins in good faith, conspiracy theorists.”
Auwaerter said, “There’s no consensus yet about the virus’ origins,” and that “many virologists believe compelling evidence points to an animal origin.” He added that it is “entirely possible” that the origins of COVID-19 will never be conclusively determined.
Committee may call Fauci to testify
Several of the witnesses criticized the delayed investigation into the pandemic’s origins and the lack of a bipartisan investigative committee.
“It is inconceivable that over three years after this deadly pandemic began, no comprehensive and unfettered investigation into pandemic origins has been carried out, nor is one currently planned,” Metzl said. “This injustice is an insult to every victim of this crisis and a clear threat to future generations.”
Metzl blamed obstruction by the Chinese government as the “primary reason there has been no comprehensive investigation into COVID-19,” saying that it “has destroyed samples, hidden records, imprisoned brave Chinese journalists, gagged Chinese scientists [and] actively spread misinformation.”
However, he added that it is also necessary to “carefully examine our own behavior and that of our friends and allies.”
Metzl called for “establishing a bipartisan U.S. national COVID-19 commission to examine the origins issue as well as other failings and shortcomings,” suggesting it could be modeled after the 9/11 Commission.
Auwaerter agreed that “an independent body would make the most sense,” while Redfield said the answer ultimately “will come from the intelligence community,” adding his view that “declassification is very important.”
Wenstrup said the subcommittee sent letters of inquiry to several government departments and key figures, including Fauci, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White House, in addition to letters sent recently to the respective heads of the U.S. State Department, FBI and DOE.
“This is a national security issue. This is a national health issue,” said Wenstrup,” adding:
“Discovering the origins is vital. It matters for the future of the world, and we aren’t finished. We’re just beginning. There will be more hearings and more inquiries and more documents discovered, and we will follow every lead.”