Feb 27, 2023 - Health

New COVID lab leak assessment reignites furor over pandemic origins

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

A new U.S. government assessment that COVID-19 likely originated from a lab leak in China has ignited yet another round of political furor around the issue, adding to many Republicans' anger over how the pandemic was handled even as many scientists remain convinced the virus most likely originated naturally.

Why it matters: Even though U.S. intelligence agencies are divided on which direction the evidence points, some prominent members of the GOP are already seizing on the news as evidence that they were right all along.

  • But the implications of the virus' origins go well beyond politics and could threaten what's already an increasingly tense U.S.-China relationship.

Driving the news: Department of Energy scientists concluded in a "low confidence" assessment that COVID-19 most likely arose from a laboratory leak, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

  • The department was previously undecided on a cause, and the new report underscored how American intelligence is split over the answer, with none having reached a conclusion with a high degree of confidence.
  • The National Intelligence Council and four government agencies officials declined to identify still assess with "low confidence" that the virus came about through natural transmission from an infected animal, the WSJ reported.

What they're saying: "The same people who shamed us, canceled us, & wanted to put us in jail for saying covid came from the Wuhan Lab ... are starting to say what we said all along," tweeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.).

  • "Being proven right doesn’t matter. What matters is holding the Chinese Communist Party accountable so this doesn't happen again," wrote Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who first raised the lab leak theory in 2020.
  • "So the government caught up to what Real America knew all along," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wrote on Twitter.
  • "When an agency comes out and says they're leaning this way but with 'low confidence?' I mean, how do you interpret that?" Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told Axios. "The question is: 'Why did you even put it out there?'" he said.
  • "As I said before, I am willing to reconsider my hypothesis if presented with verifiable, affirmative evidence," tweeted Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization. "For now, I see no evidence that suggests the current scientific evidence base is incorrect. And that evidence base continues to suggest the pandemic originated via zoonotic spillover at the Huanan market."

The big picture: The most tangible outcome may be that Republicans will use the Energy Department findings to demand answers from NIH about its oversight of risky research, and tie those to any funding increase for fiscal 2024, said Chris Meekins, a health care analyst at Raymond James.

  • An HHS inspector general's audit in January found NIH didn't effectively monitor or take timely action to address problems with grants to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that directed some of the money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study bat coronaviruses.
  • Two House Republican-led panels recently fired off letters requesting information for an investigation into COVID's origins.
  • The new lab leak assessment could have broader implications for U.S.-China relations at a particularly sensitive time. But Meekins said the ambiguity from conflicting intelligence assessments will probably prevent public demands for tougher policies against China.
  • Meekins added some public health officials' unwillingness to air out the lab leak hypothesis was a massive mistake that sets back public confidence in public health officials for a generation. "Real scientists want to get to the truth even if it is inconvenient," he told Axios. 

What to watch: This will likely come up at a House Oversight Committee hearing already scheduled for Tuesday to examine COVID policy decisions.

  • There will be plenty of renewed speculation, even if little additional information does come to light with this updated assessment.
  • "It's going to go back and forth, back and forth. This echo chamber will make it appear that those who believe it was a lab leak will have more and more evidence and those who believe it was a natural spillover will have more and more evidence. But in fact, there's not new evidence at all," Osterholm said.
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