A new classified report in the United States says COVID-19 was probably the result of a laboratory leak, fueling further debate on the origins of the pandemic as a House subcommittee prepares to tackle the issue that has divided the world politically and scientifically.
According to the Wall Street Journal, which reported on Sunday it had obtained a copy of a newly updated classified report from the US Energy Department, new intelligence gave rise to a new judgment made with “low confidence” that suggested the coronavirus pandemic most likely came from a laboratory leak.
Previously the Energy Department, which oversees a number of American laboratories in the US and abroad, had been undecided on the origins question for COVID-19.
But the “new intelligence” according to WSJ came after what officials described as updates to intelligence assessments, further study of academic literature, and in consultation with experts outside government.
Energy department officials declined to elaborate on what prompted their agency to change its position, which is now closer to what the FBI also believes but with “moderate confidence” that the virus probably spread after a lab incident.
Republicans ready for hardball
The Energy department’s new position came as the House, led by Republicans who took over last month, are gearing up for a COVID select subcommittee starting in March.
But there is already an ongoing investigation by a different Energy and Commerce Oversight committee panel that is still looking into COVID origins.
According to Axios, “there is some annoyance [on the Republican side] that Energy and Commerce Oversight is still continuing to look into the matter.”
Republican supporters have been fuming on social media over alleged misinformation about the pandemic, including debate on the origins of the virus.
Elon Musk and Anthony Fauci
Last month billionaire entrepreneur and Twitter owner Elon Musk teased followers on the social media networking app, calling on Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious disease expert, to be prosecuted.
"My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” he wrote.
The origin of the pandemic has been the subject of fierce debate around the world, giving rise to unprecedented mistrust among the public and a fresh take on conspiracy theories
Musk, who recently gave a small group of reporters access to internal documents from Twitter -known as The Twitter Files- says there has been misinformation and censorship on a number of issues, ranging from Russian political interference to the pandemic.
Fauci says he is "puzzled" because he has never been on Twitter, with the retired expert also telling members of congress during a hearing that he had "absolutely nothing to hide at all.”
But a recent debate has focused on a small grant by the US government that was awarded to Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan University Center for Animal Experiment in China, along with US-based nonprofit collaborator EcoHealth Alliance.
Specific allegations have emerged about gain-of-function, a medical research that genetically alters an organism in a way that may enhance the biological functions of gene products.
According to The Intercept, the money was given by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, headed by Fauci, who told Congress in 2021 that funds for experiments did not include gain-of-function research.
“The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” he said.
But critics argue that Fauci perhaps might not have been fully aware of the work done at the lab, while virology experts have been divided on whether gain-of-function was indeed carried out.
Officials involved in the project have acknowledged that research included an original bat coronavirus that did not spread among humans, saying the experiment was designed to gauge how bat coronaviruses could evolve to infect humans.
A number of other congressional investigations are also taking place, giving rise to concerns about overstepping boundaries in some issues, including the origins question.
But Mark Bednar, a spokesperson for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, suggested to Axios that overlaps were a good thing.
"Congressional committees routinely have overlapping jurisdictions and committees in this majority will coordinate amongst themselves to deliver the accountability and oversight that the American people expect and deserve," Bednar said.
The first known circulation of Covid-19 virus was recorded in Wuhan, China, no later than November 2019.
But the origin of the pandemic has been the subject of fierce debate among academics, intelligence experts and politicians around the world, giving rise to unprecedented mistrust among the public as well as a fresh look at conspiracy theories.