WASHINGTON — Pathogen-altering research is back under fire here, as Republican lawmakers argue it should be banned until policymakers and scientists work out whether these types of studies have helped advance infectious disease research — or played a role in the global Covid-19 pandemic.
A revamped House committee on the coronavirus heard from Trump Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield in a Wednesday hearing, where the embattled virologist argued for a “moratorium” on this approach, known as gain-of-function research, and said it had no value in understanding and readying populations for infectious disease outbreaks.
“On the contrary, I think it’s caused the greatest pandemic we’ve ever seen,” Redfield told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which under new Republican leadership has shifted focus from the Trump administration’s pandemic response to the virus’ beginnings.
No federal agency has concluded that the pathogen eventually known as Covid-19 was altered in a laboratory to make it more transmissible. There are still divides within the government and global groups such as the World Health Organization over whether the virus accidentally leaked from a Wuhan, China, laboratory or occurred naturally and spread from animals to humans through a food market.
Redfield said his lab-leak theories about the virus led to other officials sidelining him from the federal response and that he “was restricted from being able to talk to the American public.”
The House could soon pass legislation, already advanced by the Senate, requiring top intelligence officials to declassify documents related to the virus’ origins. Any answers in those documents could define an increasingly sharp debate over whether scientists should be able to alter pathogens, potentially making them more infectious or lethal, in order to study their spread and develop countermeasures.
The controversial research has already been banned before; the Trump administration lifted a three-year moratorium in late 2017. But while the National Institutes of Health recently convened experts to discuss boosting oversight, the agency hasn’t moved to ban it entirely.
Democrats, while they acknowledged that an accidental lab leak is possible, tried to direct the hearing towards increased laboratory oversight and early Trump administration missteps rather than research limits.
“[The origin of Covid-19] is a critically important question to answer to prevent future pandemics,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) “But whatever the origins of Covid-19, whether it is bats or bureaucrats, no finding will ever exonerate or rehabilitate Donald Trump for his lethal recklessness in mismanaging the crisis in America, which cost us over a million lives.”
Raskin also argued that if the virus did originate in a lab, it would make Trump even more culpable because of his frequent praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Several Republican members of the committee pointed instead to former top infectious disease official Anthony Fauci, arguing that his agency funded risky gain-of-function research — which he has denied — and that he too quickly ruled out the possibility of a lab leak.
Committee Chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) tried to clamp down on political divides during the hearing, saying “we need to get it out,” to ensure Americans trust the committee’s findings.
“I would love for [the coronavirus] to be from nature … because it’d be better for all of us. This is a national security issue; this is a national health issue,” Wenstrup said. “We need to consider all those possibilities, the lessons learned.”