Senate hearing dives into COVID-19 origins: Takeaways

June 18, 2024

A Senate hearing Tuesday on the origins of the COVID-19 virus explored the foremost theories, with lawmakers and witnesses exchanging arguments over which one they believed. 

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs heard from four scientific experts on what the current information suggests about SARS-CoV-2’s beginnings. 

The natural origins theory, the lab leak theory and the data supporting them were all heavily discussed, with the witnesses at times arguing amongst themselves while testifying.  

The expert witnesses invited by Democrats were Gregory D. Koblentz, associate professor and director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University, and Robert F. Garry, professor and associate dean of the School of Medicine at Tulane University, as well as an author of an early COVID-19 origins theory opinion piece that sparked widespread debate.

The GOP experts witnesses were Steven C. Quay, CEO of Atossa Therapeutics and former faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Richard H. Ebright, Board of Governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. 

Here are few a takeaways from the hearing: 

Lab leak not ruled out 

Straight off the bat, committee Chair Gary Peters (D-Mich.) set the tone of the hearing by giving credence to both the natural origins and lab leak theories. 

“There are theories that indicate that COVID-19 began either by entering the human population through an entirely natural means or possibly through a lab incident or accident,” Peters said in his opening remarks.  

“Given the likelihood that the Chinese government may never fully disclose all the information they have about the initial COVID-19 outbreak, we want to use the scientific information available to better prepare for future potential pandemics.” 

Ranking Member Rand Paul (R-Ky.), expressed a general openness to either theory, though indicated his inclination toward the lab leak origins theory. 

“Do we know for certain it came from the lab? No, but there’s a preponderance of evidence indicating that it may have come from the lab. Do we know viruses have come from animals in the past? Yes, they’ve come from animals in the past, but this time, there’s no animal reservoir,” Paul said. 

Panel mixed on origin beliefs 

The witnesses were evenly divided when it came to which theory they favored. 

Neither Koblentz nor Garry completely ruled out that the COVID-19 virus could have originated from a laboratory incident, but said they believed evidence supported the natural origin theory.

“I believe available evidence points most strongly to a natural zoonotic spillover event. As the origin of the pandemic. However, a research-related accident can’t be rolled out at this time,” Koblentz told the committee. 

“I do not believe that the available scientific evidence when considered holistically supports that the virus was created in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” said Garry.  

“However, I am first and foremost a scientist, and I will adhere to the scientific method. So, I will continue to evaluate new evidence and reassess the validity of my scientific hypotheses regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2.”

Quay argued that SARS-CoV-2 has several features that are only found in synthetic viruses and don’t occur in natural viruses. “The probability that SARS-CoV-2 came from nature based on these features is one in a billion.”

Ebright said that the virus could only have originated from a lab, given the research being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). He argued it was too coincidental that viruses proposed for researched at the WIV shared certain characteristics with COVID-19.

“A virus having the exact features proposed in the 2018 NIH and DARPA proposals emerged on the doorstep of Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Ebright said. “SARS-CoV-2 is the only one of more than 800 known SARS viruses that possesses a furin cleavage site. Mathematically, this observation alone implies that the probability of finding a natural SARS virus possessing a furin cleavage site is less than one in 800.”

COVID origins paper author takes a lashing 

Garry, who co-authored the paper “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2″ in 2020, faced a disproportionate degree of ire from Republican committee members. The piece did not rule out a lab leak theory, but the authors did conclude that a “laboratory-based scenario” was not believed to be plausible. 

Former chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci cited the publication when speaking in support of a natural origins theory, Subsequent reporting revealed that Fauci, along with other federal health officials, were in communication with the authors shortly before the piece was published. 

This has led GOP lawmakers to accuse Fauci and the authors of the analysis of colluding to suppress the lab leak theory. 

“It’s absolutely disgraceful, Dr. Garry. You are part of this propaganda effort. I mean, you are right at the center of it. It’s astounding,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). 

“I was simply just writing a paper about our scientific opinions about where this virus came from,” Garry responded. 

Paul directly asked one of the GOP witnesses, Ebright, what he thought of the “Proximal origin” paper. 

Ebright emphasized that it was not a research article but an opinion piece. 

“The authors were stating their opinion, but that opinion was not well-founded. In 2020, there was no basis to state that as a conclusion, as opposed to simply being a hypothesis,” Ebright argued. “You’d never, under any circumstances, in a scientific journal, state conclusions that you note to be unsound that represents scientific misconduct.” 

Garry has spoken to Congress on numerous occasions since the paper’s publication, speaking with the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in a closed-door interview last June and testifying publicly on his paper the following month.

He has maintained that his paper was not influenced by Fauci nor other federal health officials to explicitly favor a natural origins theory.