Republicans Push Lab Leak Theory on Covid’s Origins, but Lack ‘Smoking Gun’

WASHINGTON — The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention accused top federal health officials on Wednesday of excluding him from discussions in early 2020 about whether the coronavirus was the result of a laboratory leak — an assertion that one of the officials, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, later said had “nothing to do with reality.”

Three years into the pandemic, the accusation by the former C.D.C. director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, put a spotlight on the lingering bitterness and partisan divisions around the scientific question of the virus’s origins.

Dr. Redfield, a virologist who ran the C.D.C. during the Trump administration, believes the pandemic was most likely the result of a lab leak. He testified on Wednesday at the first hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which is digging into the origins of a virus that has killed nearly seven million people worldwide.

The hearing produced no new evidence but plenty of political theater, and it made clear just how difficult it might be to turn up conclusive evidence about whether the virus escaped from a lab or spilled over from animals to humans naturally. It is a question worth answering, said Representative Ami Bera, Democrat of California, a doctor who serves on the subcommittee and said he was agnostic on the issue.

“There is no smoking gun proving a laboratory origin hypothesis, but the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests a gun that is at very least warm to the touch,” said another witness at the House hearing, Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked in the Clinton administration and described himself as a Democrat.

In making the case for a laboratory leak, multiple witnesses focused on a particular feature of the virus that causes Covid-19. That feature, called a furin cleavage site, helps the virus efficiently infect human cells.

In 2018, EcoHealth Alliance, a research nonprofit, and several of its partners, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, sought funding from the Defense Department to experiment on coronaviruses that could spread in humans. Their proposal, which was rejected, involved studying furin cleavage sites.

One of the witnesses, Nicholas Wade, who served as The New York Times’s science editor in the 1990s and left the news organization at the end of 2011, told lawmakers that researchers may have already done experiments in which they inserted furin sites into coronaviruses.

Mr. Wade questioned the likelihood that evolution would “produce, at that very time and at that very place, a virus of the exact type described” in the groups’ proposal.

EcoHealth said on Wednesday that researchers did not do the experiments before proposing them in part because they “required a substantial budget.”

No evidence has yet emerged showing that the Wuhan lab’s researchers had any virus in its collections that could have been altered to make the virus that causes Covid-19. Scientists have said natural evolutionary processes could easily explain the presence of the furin cleavage site.

At the time, some scientists said the furin cleavage site made them wonder whether the virus had been engineered. The emails show that Dr. Jeremy Farrar, a British medical researcher, set up a call so scientists could discuss it. Dr. Fauci, at the time the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Francis S. Collins, who led the National Institutes of Health, were on the call.

Dr. Redfield said he did not find out about the call until much later, when the emails became public. The messages do not refer to or name Dr. Redfield. But he told lawmakers that when he learned of them, he concluded that Dr. Fauci and Dr. Collins had intentionally excluded him because he believed the virus had originated in a lab.

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