GOP gets scalps in COVID probe, but origin of virus still a mystery

May 25, 2024

The GOP-controlled subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic appears to be swaying the Biden administration with its exhaustive examinations targeting groups and individuals with links to the unproven COVID-19 lab leak theory. 

In the past month, the subcommittee has heard testimony from EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak and Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It also called in David Morens, a top deputy to former COVID czar Anthony Fauci, who was grilled over damning revelations about his conduct

The purpose of these hearings has been to nail down a timeline of what went on between federal officials and EcoHealth before and after the COVID-19 outbreak, and whether any of it may have contributed to the global health crisis. 

Seemingly coinciding with these hearings, the White House has moved to debar EcoHealth and Daszak from receiving federal funds. And members of the committee believe they’ve had a hand in these decisions. 

“I think that the subcommittee had influence over EcoHealth by exposing what happened,” Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.) told The Hill. 

“But I don’t think that the subcommittee has used its influence for good in the way that it could. So that was a small positive thing that the committee has done,” Ross added. “But there have been so many missed opportunities for bipartisan work with this committee, that it almost breaks my heart.” 

Despite a series of reports and hearings, neither the committee nor federal agencies seem to be any closer to nailing down the origins of the virus that had killed nearly 1.2 million Americans and counting. 

EcoHealth is an infectious disease nonprofit that received federal grants to study emerging viruses. The organization in turn sub-awarded grants to labs including the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) that researched coronaviruses. Critics, including GOP members of the subcommittee, have questioned whether the WIV’s research resulted in a lab leak that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

While this theory hasn’t been proven, federal health officials have repeatedly accused EcoHealth of failing to conduct proper oversight of the WIV and other sub-grant recipients, as well as failing to send in timely progress reports. 

The administration is maintaining the decision to move forward with barring EcoHealth from federal funds was an “independent action.” 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not address the timing of the moves to cut funding when asked by The Hill. They pointed to prior statements which said the move came after a “thorough investigation” that found EcoHealth “has not been compliant with federal regulations and grant terms and conditions.” 

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) has made it clear he believes the timing is no coincidence. 

“Only two weeks after the Select Subcommittee released an extensive report detailing EcoHealth’s wrongdoing and recommending the formal debarment of EcoHealth and its president, HHS has begun efforts to cut off all U.S. funding to this corrupt organization,” he said in a statement shortly after the announcement was made. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have shared bipartisan rebuke of EcoHealth and its apparent failures to abide by federal requirements, a rare occurrence for the panel that has been sharply divided by partisan fights since its inception in 2020. 

While Democrats have joined in condemning misconduct, several members have been quick to point out what these testimonies have not achieved: ascertaining the origins of COVID-19, one of the panel’s key stated objectives after Republicans took control. 

These hearings have instead largely had the effect of embarrassing federal health agencies like NIH as well as current and former officials, including Fauci. 

This dynamic was perfectly on display during the subcommittee’s most recent hearing involving Morens, the senior adviser to the director at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), who worked closely with Fauci during his tenure as the agency’s director. 

Morens’s publicized emails showed apparent efforts to conduct official business outside the scope of Freedom of Information Act requests, deleting federal records, misogynistic comments about fellow federal health officials and poorly worded jokes that hinted at a quid pro quo relationship with Daszak of EcoHealth. 

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) lambasted Morens, accusing him of betraying public trust and misusing federal resources. But he reiterated the hearing seemed to deviate from the panel’s purpose. 

“Dr. Morens’s testimony today is not a breakthrough moment in actually understanding the actual origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ruiz added. “Because the fact of the matter is that as of today, the origins of the novel coronavirus remain inconclusive.” 

Over nearly two hours of questioning, Morens said he used his personal email account for the sake of “avoiding more embarrassment and danger to” Daszak, who has been a main target of COVID lab leak theorists. 

The hearing saw the NIAID adviser publicly apologize for numerous missteps documented in his emails. Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii) directly requested an apology from Morens for how his actions have tarnished the rest of the federal workforce. 

“Can you say that you will, in fact, apologize for betraying your shared obligation of serving the American taxpayers with the utmost respect for transparency and accountability, that you let Americans down? Will you apologize for that?” Tokuda requested. 

Morens disputed the use of the word “betray” but said he was not proud of his behavior. 

In one email to Daszak, Morens implied Fauci was trying to “protect” EcoHealth as a grant recipient. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) asked Morens if he ever discussed EcoHealth with Fauci. 

“He referred or alluded to some stuff that was in the press. I don’t even think he said what it was, but it was about … I assumed it was about Peter’s grants and press reports about it and the ending of the grant,” said Morens.

“I said to him, ‘Tony, I know you would have never been involved in getting rid of that grant.’ And he didn’t respond. He just sort of looked at me,” he added. 

Another email to Daszak, on which other federal COVID advisers were copied, seemed to suggest Fauci was aware of improper conduct but sought to shield himself from it. 

“I can either send stuff to Tony on his private gmail, or hand it to him at work or at his house. He is too smart to let colleagues send him stuff that could cause trouble,” Morens wrote to the EcoHealth president. 

Fauci himself is scheduled to testify before the subcommittee on June 3, marking the first time he’s taken part in a congressional hearing since stepping down from government work.