Two world-renowned virologists appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday and voiced a sharp defense of their findings that the coronavirus pandemic was natural in origin and told skeptical Republicans that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci exerted no influence over an article scientific to which they wrote 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 crack down on the notion 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 yielded no new evidence to support the Republicans’ claims. The hearing was titled “Investigating the Proximal Origin of a Coverup” – a play on the title of the article, “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, which was published in the journal Nature Medicine in March 2020.
« The claim that Dr. Fauci pushed 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 headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the time; Dr. Collins; and Dr Jeremy Farrar, then director of the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation which funds health research. Dr. Farrar is now the World Health Organization’s chief scientist.
Republicans have used the emails to suggest that scientists studying the origins of the virus, after initially expressing the idea that it may have been engineered in a lab, have changed their minds due to contributions from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins. , including during a Feb. 1, 2020, conference call that included the authors of the proximal origin study.
The scientists said their views had changed after days of intense work, which included studying characteristics 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 said that Dr. Fauci called the Feb. 1 call and pushed for the paper to be released as a way to quash public discussion about a possible leak from the lab. But Dr. Andersen and Dr. Garry both testified that Dr. Farrar had called the call. And Dr. Andersen said Dr. Fauci had in fact encouraged any concerns about a lab leak to be aired.
“I especially 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 of the study, has come under scrutiny for suggesting in a mid-February 2020 email that the authors edit a sentence saying it was « unlikely » that the virus had emerged through the laboratory manipulation to one who said the virus was « unlikely » to have emerged that way. A WHO spokesman on Tuesday declined to answer questions about Dr. Farrar’s role.
In an email after the hearing, Dr. Fauci wrote that the idea that he had attempted 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. »
At times, the hearing took on the air of competing science lectures. Dr. Andersen often began his responses with the phrase, « I think it’s important to understand… » Republican panelists have tried in vain to lecture virologists, sometimes making outright incorrect claims.
« I’m making a scientific point here, » the subcommittee chair, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican and podiatrist, said at one point.
After the hearing, Mr. Wenstrup shook Dr. Andersen’s hand and said he hoped Dr. Andersen thought the hearing was professional. Dr. Andersen said he thought he was. But beneath the courtesy, the tension between Republicans and 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 place as the virus’s genetic material have strengthened the view of many scientists that the virus emerged from China’s illegal wildlife trade.
But Republicans repeatedly suggested on Tuesday that because so much is known about the work of Chinese researchers, a leak from the lab was actually possible. They theorized that US officials wanted to downplay this possibility because they wanted to avoid being blamed for funding Chinese research, and that scientists wanted to avoid alienating their Chinese counterparts.
They specifically cited a Slack message in February 2020 from one of the eventual authors of the proximal origination 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, “my feeling is that we should say that since there is no evidence of a specifically engineered virus, we absolutely cannot distinguish between evolution natural and escape, so we are content to attribute it to natural processes.
When asked about the comment, Dr Rambaut said in an email on Tuesday that he expressed reluctance to speculate that the coronavirus had escaped from a laboratory because there were no signs it had ever been in a laboratory.
« We didn’t have evidence from the genome that it was anything other than a virus from nature, » he said, adding, « Don’t accuse people of things if there’s no evidence. »