The Senate Homeland Security Governmental Affairs committee held a hearing and debate Tuesday morning regarding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hearing included two scientists who believe a zoonotic origin is the most likely explanation and two scientists who believe the virus was generated in a lab before leaking to the public.

Gregory Koblentz and Robert Garry were on hand to support the zoonotic origins of the virus. Steven Quay and Richard Ebright were there to argue on behalf of a lab-leak origin. Dr. Garry was one of the authors of the controversial proximal origin paper that was widely distributed to indicate that the origin of COVID-19 came from a zoonotic spillover incident at the wet market in Wuhan.

Dr. Garry received some stern questioning from Senators on the committee and was accused of spreading propaganda for being an author of the proximal origin paper. Dr. Garry said, “We stand by that paper. It was a good paper.” He went on to say that more evidence has come forth since the paper was published to support their conclusions.

When asked about his opinions regarding the proximal origin paper, Richard Ebright said publishing conclusions they did not believe true “is the most egregious form of scientific misconduct. It was published as a commentary,” Ebright explained, “The authors were stating their opinion. In March of 2020, there was no basis to state that as a conclusion. We know that compelling evidence has been presented that four of the authors of that paper in their private communications so clearly that they know the conclusion that they stated in that article was invalid. I would tell a younger scientist that you do not state a conclusion without evidence even in an opinion piece in a scientific conclusion. That represents scientific misconduct up to and including fraud. The proximal origin paper has been recommended for review for retraction.”

Dr. Garry said they didn’t know for certain that the virus originated from a zoonotic spillover incident. Still, he pointed to the southwest corner of the Wuhan wet market as evidence to support his conclusion. “This is where the wildlife was sold,” Garry said. “Many samples there had SARS-CoV-2. The most likely explanation is the animals themselves were in fact infected with SARS-CoV-2. We don’t have the smoking gun evidence that there was an infected animal at the market.”

Garry also pointed to the origin of SARS-1, an outbreak that occurred from 2002 to 2004. That outbreak was discovered to have a zoonotic spillover origin. Dr. Steven Quay agreed with Garry about a zoonotic origin for that virus but detailed the key differences between that virus and COVID-19.

Dr. Quay explained that for SARS-1, “There were 11 cities, 11 markets, 3 different lineages, and a thirty nucleotide difference among the initial cases and patients. SARS-2 of course, it’s either in one market or it’s in no market. There’s no other proposal for a market origin of it. 457 animals were tested for it in the market, 0 were found to be infected. SARS-1, 92 animals, 100% infected. The wildlife vendors in SARS-1 were all infected. We have 10 vendors here; none of them are infected.”

Quay further explained the high unlikelihood that the pandemic originated from the wet market. “The genome inside the virus comports to the DEFUSE grant in such a way that it’s inconsistent. In a court of law, you find someone criminally for 95% or greater probabilities, and this is one in a billion that this is a synthetic virus.”

Senator Peters asked if Quay had hard evidence for the claim he was making. Quay said, “The hard evidence is the incidents of the features of SARS-CoV-2 can individually be looked at in nature They can be identified with the frequency in nature. You can say ‘What is the chance that each of these were combined in one virus at the same time?’ This is what virologists do all the time in looking for origins. When you do that, you conclude that it has a one in a billion chance of coming from nature and it meets all 7 criteria of the DEFUSE grant.”

The hearing often stepped away from the origin theory questions and discussed specifically the risks and benefits of doing gain-of-function  research. Ebright said,”The research in question has zero practical civilian applications. GoF research on potential pandemic pathogens is not used and does not contribute to the development of vaccines (or drugs).”

A little bit later, Senator Mitt Romney asked why the origins debate is always intense. Regardless of which theory is correct or whether we can definitely prove one theory as fact, he said there are steps we can take to prevent future pandemics, and we should focus on that.

Garry suggested that to have a fruitful discussion, they must come up with a specific definition for what they mean by gain-of-function. Ebright said there had been a legal operating definition of gain-of-function research from 2014-2017 and again from 2018-present. “The definitions have never been in question,” Ebright said, “The intensity comes from those who are practitioners of gain-of-function research and related high risk research on potential pandemic pathogens who have for two decades successfully resisted federal oversight of their activities. For two decades who have insisted on self-regulation without oversight and would like this to continue despite the very real possibility that SARS-CoV-2 may have come from precisely that category of research. Only after there is an acknowledgment that there is a very real possibility of a lab origin will there be the political will to impose regulation on this scientific community that has successfully resisted and obstructed regulation for two decades.”

Senator Ron Johnson questioned Garry regarding the federal funding he receives from the NIH to do research. Garry didn’t know the number, but Johnson provided it. Johnson said that Garry received $25.2 million after authoring the proximal origin paper while suggesting that he will lose grant money if gain-of-function research is discovered to cause a worldwide pandemic.

“The reason the American public legitimately don’t trust scientists and federal health agencies is because of people like you,” Johnson said to Dr. Garry, “You bear that responsibility for violating the public’s trust.”

Senator Hawley unleashed on Garry for propagandizing the American people by authoring a paper that contradicted his private emails with other NIH and NIAID scientists. He read Garry’s email, in which Garry wrote, “I really can’t think of a plausible natural scenario where you could get from the bat virus or one very similar to it to this. I just can’t figure out how this gets accomplished in nature. It’s stunning. Of course, in a lab, it would be easy.”

Garry responded, “Of course. I actually figured it out. That’s the whole point of that.”

Hawley pointed out that he wrote that email in early February, which is when he said he started working on the proximal origins paper.

Garry said that he stands behind the paper and the conclusion that the virus did not have a laboratory origin. He said it was the same conclusion the intelligence agency had come to. To which Hawley shot back, “That is a lie.”

Hawley explained that multiple intelligence agencies believe the pandemic started from a lab leak. Hawley said “You have disgracefully participated in shameful propaganda,” Hawley said. “It is wrong to censor and lie to the American public.” Garry said, “All we did was write a paper.”

The committee asked the witnesses to provide some suggestions to prevent the next pandemic from occurring. “In order to address the threat of a natural zoonotic spillover pandemic, there really needs to be a one health approach to biosurveillance preventing spillover in key countries that are ecologically prime for disease emergence.” He added that a global biosurveillance system is needed so that outbreaks don’t become pandemics.

Garry said “We have bird flu in our dairy cattle in the U.S. That’s a very dangerous virus. I would take a look at that and see what we can do to keep the unthinkable from happening in that virus acquiring extra features. Maybe recombination of the virus from a pig. Maybe recombination of the virus from a human to turn that into a virus that would be very difficult to control if it’s spread right now with our current technologies.”

Quay and Ebright both stated the need for an independent review board separate from the NIH to remove any conflicts of interest. Ebright added that the review board should review all types of research, not just federally funded ones. The board should also be reviewing classified and unclassified research. Ebright stressed the importance of legislation that makes enforceable laws. He said that self regulation has never worked and never will work.

Senator Rand Paul said the next Senate committee hearing will discuss next steps for gain-of-function reform.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steven Middendorp

Steven Middendorp is an investigative journalist, musician, and teacher. He has been a freelance writer and journalist for over 20 years. More recently, he has focused on issues dealing with corruption and negligence in the judicial system. He is a homesteading hobby farmer who encourages people to grow their own food, eat locally, and care for the land that provides sustenance to the community.

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