Column: How the GOP — with Democratic Party connivance — has undermined a crucial effort to avert the next pandemic

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We’ve all come to recognize that committee hearings conducted by the Republican House majority are almost invariably clown shows featuring spittle-flecked posturing by members intent on displaying their ignorance to an appreciative crowd.

Wednesday’s hearing by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic was a crystalline example of the genre. It was designed around the grilling of Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, which oversees international virus research funded by federal agencies.

The members scraped along rock-bottom, but the most telling moment may have been this exchange between Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) and Daszak. Asked to explain an apparent (but not real) discrepancy in a progress report EcoHealth submitted to the government, Daszak started to answer, but a theatrically fulminating Griffith cut him off.

“I can give you the answer to your question,” Daszak said.

“I’m going to answer it for you!” Griffith shot back, then outrageously accused Daszak of lying. Daszak didn’t get a chance to reply.

The whole session, more than three hours, went that way. The members kept peppering Daszak with questions about abstruse matters of science and the grant-making process, only to rudely cut him off when he tried to respond. They misquoted him to his face, misrepresented his work, and spouted cocksure inanities showing with every word that, scientifically speaking, they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Ideally, congressional hearings should be fact-finding efforts. This was nothing of the kind. It was an opportunity for posturing by politicians intent only on smearing Daszak and EcoHealth on the pretext of getting to the bottom of the pandemic’s cause.

How do we know this? From the fact that hours before the hearing even began, the subcommittee released a report calling on the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services to “immediately commence suspension and debarment proceedings against both EcoHealth and Dr. Daszak” — in other words, permanently cut them off from federal funding.

One more thing about this ludicrious cabaret act: The Democratic committee members, who should have been standing up for science and scientists, did the opposite by throwing Daszak under the bus.

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Raul Ruiz (D-Indio), attacked the GOP majority’s preposterous position that the U.S. government funded research that created the virus responsible for COVID-19. But he accepted its position that Daszak “sought to deliberately mislead” government regulators.

Ruiz’s statement was echoed by other Democrats, including Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). Perhaps they hoped that by allowing Daszak to be drawn and quartered, they might persuade the Republicans to climb down from their evidence-free claims about government complicity in the pandemic’s origins.

Their hearts didn’t seem to be in it, though; they talked as though their main concern was that EcoHealth was spending government funds. They all seemed to be reading from the same ChatGPT script, the key phrase of which was: “poor steward of the taxpayers’ dollars.” Nothing about EcoHealth’s significant achievements in public health.

That makes the Democrats’ performance all the more shameful and cowardly. They’re knowingly participating in a flagrantly fictitious smear campaign.

Let’s examine the background of this display of partisan grandstanding.

Fundamentally, it’s part of a disreputable campaign to demonize responsible scientists such as Anthony Fauci, who retired in 2022 as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and was one of the most respected virologists and public health professionals in the world.

Republican leaders and the right wing have tried to turn Fauci into a sinister figure by advancing the absurd proposition that he somehow played a role in creating COVID-19 and spreading it worldwide, and that he masterminded the nation’s anti-pandemic policies, even though he had zero authority to do so.

This is no innocent game; it has subjected Fauci, who was a top pandemic advisor to Donald Trump until his resistance to Trump’s unhinged takes on the pandemic led to his being sidelined at the White House, to death threats and unending vilification on social media.

Daszak has come in for more than his share of character assassination. Social media posts referring to him have included the image of a guillotine. As the pandemic developed, Daszak told the committee in his opening statement Wednesday, “Our organization, staff, and even my own family were often targeted with false allegations, death threats, break-ins, media harassment, and other damaging acts.”

One recent post on X (formerly Twitter) said “the Daszak family should be shot down.” Daszak says he has asked X to cancel the abusive, anonymous account, without success.

What’s the purpose of this campaign? The attack on the credibility of science and scientists has arisen because validated scientific findings about global warming and the origins of COVID-19 cause economic and political discomfort to Big Business and know-nothings who believe that undermining science will advance their political careers. (I’m looking at you, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.)

An essential tenet of the right-wing position on COVID-19 is that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory, specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Superficially this is an alluring theory, since the initial outbreak occurred at a wildlife market in that city. But there is absolutely not a speck of evidence for that theory, and scientific research overwhelmingly indicates that the virus reached humans via a spillover from infected wildlife — the path followed by countless viral outbreaks over human history.

Lab leak advocates love to point to a statement FBI Director Christopher Wray made in an interview with Fox News in March 2023 — that the bureau had concluded with “moderate confidence” that the virus had escaped from the Chinese lab. But he cited no evidence; the FBI’s assessment, which had been previously disclosed, had been part of a survey of all U.S. intelligence agencies that largely contradicted the FBI’s position. And in June, a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence refuted claims that the Chinese lab had played any role in the pandemic.

Anyway, the WIV isn’t exactly near the market — it’s miles away on the far side of the Yangtze River, in a city as densely populated as Los Angeles, with almost three times L.A.’s population, and a huge regional transportation and commercial hub.

That brings us back to EcoHealth, which was founded in 1971 and has long been an essential clearinghouse for funding for research into “emerging disease threats to the U.S.,” as Daszak said in his opening statement.

That has included providing funds for the WIV and other research in China, where viruses capable of jumping into the human population — as did SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19 — are commonly found in bats, and where a vigorous, illicit trade in wildlife brings millions of humans into direct contact with potential disease carriers.

EcoHealth’s relationship with Chinese research institutions was open and aboveboard, and its funnelling U.S. grants to those institutions explicitly approved by the NIH and HHS.

EcoHealth was long considered a gold-plated research organization. “Their grants, when reviewed scientifically, scored at the highest levels in the scientific community,” says Gerald T. Keusch, a former associate director of international research at NIH. “The work they proposed was absolutely stunningly good.”

An internal memo prepared at NIH for a Fauci news conference in January 2020 described EcoHealth as one of “the biggest players in coronavirus work” and Daszak as one of “the world’s experts in … non-human coronaviruses” such as SARS-CoV-2.

As I’ve reported, EcoHealth’s useful and productive role in virological research began to unravel at a news conference April 17, 2020 when a reporter from a right-wing organization mentioned to then-President Trump that NIH had given a $3.7-million grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Actually, the WIV grant, which was channeled from a larger EcoHealth grant, was only $600,000).

Trump, sensing an opportunity to show a strong hand against China and advance his effort to blame the Chinese for the pandemic, responded: “We will end that grant very quickly.” The NIH terminated the full EcoHealth grant one week later prompting a backlash from the scientific community, including an open letter signed by 77 Nobel laureates who saw the action as a flagrantly partisan interference in government funding of scientific research.

The HHS inspector general found the termination to be “improper.” NIH reinstated the grant, but immediately suspended it until EcoHealth met several conditions that were manifestly beyond its capability, as they involved its demanding information from the Chinese government that it had no right to receive.

The EcoHealth grant was finally restored in May 2023. By then, EcoHealth no longer had a relationship with WIV, which had been barred from receiving any NIH funds. Still, at the time I celebrated the end of a Trump-inspired three-year shutdown of field work to examine how viruses move from rural wildlife to humans. Unfortunately, that was premature.

Since then, Daszak told me, NIH has continued to erect bureaucratic barriers preventing EcoHealth from accessing funds under the grant, in effect freezing its ability to work.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the GOP tried to pretend that the decision to terminate the grant was all NIH’s idea. “This was not ended by the president of the United States,” declared Mitchell Benzine, counsel to the subcommittee’s Republican majority.

Benzine has a suspiciously short memory. According to documents that the subcommittee itself made public, on Jan. 5 this year, Benzine himself elicited closed-door testimony from Lawrence Tabak, a top NIH official, that after that 2020 news conference “[Trump Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows called the Office of General Counsel at HHS, who then called Dr. Tabak, who then called Dr. [Michael] Lauer, who was instructed to cancel the grant.” Can’t get a much more direct line from Trump to NIH than that.

(Lauer is an NIH functionary who has been a key figure placing the bureaucreatic obstacle course before EcoHealth; my request for comment from him and Tabak was met with a no-comment from NIH.)

Wednesday’s hearing largely recapitulated the attacks on EcoHealth that have been floating in the right-wing fever swamp for four years now. They include a litany of minor bureaucratic snafus, such as a grant progress report that missed a deadline (Daszak said the problem was a glitch in an NIH web portal that prevented it from being submitted on time).

One key assertion is that EcoHealth was funding “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute. “Gain of function” is a widely misunderstood term that has become a shibboleth for proponents of the lab-leak hypothesis, who use it as an all-purpose symbol of sinister behavior, like “critical race theory” or “DEI” (diversity, equity and inclusion).

Technically speaking, gain-of-function is a method of modifying a pathogen in the lab to gauge its infectiousness in humans, the better to develop countermeasures such as vaccines. The right-wing claims that such research in China funded by NIH and EcoHealth created SARS-CoV-2, which then escaped into the wild.

There’s no evidence that the Wuhan lab did anything like that, and experienced virologists have questioned whether it’s even technically possible to have created the SARS2 virus given today’s level of knowledge. The U.S. government placed a moratorium on gain-of-function research from 2014 through 2017 to allow for the development of best-practice protocols.

NIH explicitly confirmed to EcoHealth that the studies it was funding didn’t qualify as gain-of-function under its own definition. That didn’t stop the committee members from wasting long swaths of their session accusing Daszak of secretly funding such experiments.

The attacks on EcoHealth appall scientists and public health experts who know that the organization’s work in identifying potential pandemic sources and crafting responses has never been more important. Agricultural authorities are dealing with the spread of a bird flu virus into cattle herds, another case of species-to-species, or zoonotic, viral transmission.

Given the bipartisan attacks against it, whether EcoHealth can avoid being cut off from all government funding is an open question. But that only underscores the supine irresponsibility with which Democrats have bought into the right wing’s attack on the organization and its crucial work.

“We now have zoonotic threats emerging at an accelerating cadence,” says Peter Hotez, a molecular virologist who is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“This is a time when we need to be doubling down and expanding our global virus surveillance networks,” Hotez told me. “By making up allegations, they’re undermining the work of EcoHealth and other organizations committed to understanding how viruses are jumping from animals to humans. We’re creating incredible vulnerability for ourselves. They’re damaging our national security. That to me is unforgivable — that they’re willing to jeopardize national security for political expedience.”

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