New probes will examine origins of COVID-19 pandemic and research ties to China
- 13 JAN 2023
- 3:40 PM
- BYSCIENCE NEWS STAFF
The new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is preparing to shine a bright light on science—and scientists. This week, it created two investigative panels that will scrutinize the country’s relationship with China and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both committees are expected to grill many prominent scientists and federal research officials on their actions over the past several years.
In approach and style, however, they are likely to be very different. The China panel, officially the Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, is fueled by concerns in both parties that China has used economic espionage to help become a global leader in key high-tech fields, including energy storage, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. “It’s time to understand the urgency of the threat [posed by China] … by working on a bipartisan basis,” says its new chair, Representative Mike Gallagher (R–WI), a former intelligence officer.
In contrast, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic is widely regarded as an opportunity for House Republicans to criticize President Joe Biden’s administration’s response to the global crisis. Approved on a party line vote of 220 to 213 as part of a package of new House rules, the panel is also expected to focus on claims, unsupported by evidence, that a laboratory in Wuhan, China, either bioengineered or accidentally released SARS-CoV-2 obtained from bats.
The China committee will build on previous congressional reports that have questioned the value of continued scientific collaboration with China despite the large number of students and scientists born in China who conduct research on U.S. campuses and run high-tech companies. The 365-to-65 House vote to create the panel points to a bipartisan consensus that U.S. higher education can do more to protect federally funded research from foreign influences, without sacrificing the traditional free flow of talent and ideas across national borders.
Although a majority of House Democrats voted to create the panel, some worry it may be a way to revive the now-canceled China Initiative, a law enforcement initiative under former President Donald Trump’s administration that led to the criminal prosecutions of some two dozen academic scientists of Chinese ancestry.
“We have always recognized that there are legitimate concerns with the actions of the [Chinese] government,” said Representative Judy Chu (D–CA), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, who opposed setting up the special panel. “But this committee should not be used as an open invitation to engage in blatantly xenophobic anti-China rhetoric … and to promote policies that result in the racial profiling of our communities.”
Ties with China will be a focus of the pandemic panel as well. The Wuhan lab received some U.S. government funding, leading to accusations that U.S. officials squelched concerns about the lab and attempted to mislead the public about the pandemic’s origins. Representative James Comer (R–KY), chair of the House oversight panel that will administer the select committee, has said it will investigate “what the U.S. government knew regarding the origins of COVID-19 and when the government knew it.”
The pandemic panel’s chair has yet to be named, but it is expected to aggressively pursue requests, sent last month by Comer and Representative Jim Jordan (R–OH), for detailed information from more than 40 academic scientists and government officials. It also is likely to examine how the U.S. government regulates and funds “gain-of-function” research, which can make viruses more dangerous to humans in order to better understand the risks they pose and devise better vaccines and treatments.
One high-profile target of the panel will be immunologist Anthony Fauci, former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Comer has alleged that “Fauci was warned early on that the virus appeared manmade and pointed to a lab leak and instead of blowing the whistle may have attempted to cover it up.”
Other targets include conservation biologist Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that subcontracted a grant from NIAID to the Wuhan laboratory, and four scientists involved in producing a 2020 Nature Medicine paper that concluded SARS-CoV-2 was not engineered in a laboratory. They are Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research, Michael Farzan of UF Scripps Biomedical Research, Robert Garry of Tulane University, and Ian Lipkin of Columbia University.
Fauci has rejected allegations of any cover-up and says he is willing to answer questions from Congress. EcoHealth issued a statement saying it has “cooperated with every bipartisan initiative that has contacted us” and told Comer and Jordan it will “assist” lawmakers in their effort “to understand the scientific evidence behind COVID-19’s origins.”
Other researchers contacted by Comer and Jordan said they are reviewing the requests to provide a wide array of “documents and communications” related to the Nature Medicinepaper, the Wuhan laboratory, and other issues.
On a party line vote, the House also created a third new committee to examine what many Republicans see as government overreach into the lives of the average American. The Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government will probe “how executive branch agencies collect, compile, analyze, use, or disseminate information about citizens of the United States, including any unconstitutional, illegal, or unethical activities committed against U.S. citizens.”
Jordan is also the presumptive chair of the new select panel, which will report to the Judiciary Committee that he chairs. This week, on the House floor, he said it will pursue how agencies such as FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have jeopardized the freedoms of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble guaranteed to all residents by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Democrats don’t buy that explanation. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D–NY), who chaired the Judiciary Committee when the Democrats controlled the House, says the new panel “is fueled by conspiracy theories and [will be] run by the most extreme members of the MAGA [Make America Great Again] caucus,” referring to Trump supporters.
The committee’s charter is broad enough to include an examination of data gathering by the Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies, long a concern of some Republican lawmakers. But census watchers say they expect the panel to focus on examples where agencies targeted individuals rather than those collecting data to understand demographic trends.
None of the select panels has the power to write or approve legislation. And any policy recommendations would have to win enough votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate and avoid a presidential veto to become law.With reporting by Jon Cohen and Jeffrey Mervis.