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The House overwhelmingly voted Friday to direct US intelligence officials to declassify information about the origins of Covid-19, a move backers say could help inform Congress’s next response to the virus’s three-year spread across the globe.
The bill (S. 619), which was cleared on a 419-0 vote, heads to President Joe Biden’s desk as the Senate passed the measures March 1. Both the Senate and House votes were bipartisan, with Democrats saying they’re open to the idea that Covid first spread after leaking from a Chinese laboratory.
Republicans, who for years have said a lab leak is the most likely origin of the virus, say getting conclusive evidence is crucial to moving on.
“This question is fundamental to helping us predict and prevent future pandemics, protecting our health and national security, and preparing the United States for the future,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), chairman of the House’s select subcommittee on the coronavirus, said earlier this week at a hearing on the topic.
The exact origin of Covid isn’t known. Many scientists say it’s plausible the virus began naturally, starting in animals. Others point to the presence of a virology lab in Wuhan, China, where the virus first circulated, and other circumstantial evidence as signs it originated in a laboratory.
Biden last year directed government agencies to assess the origins of Covid. The Department of Energy concluded the Covid-19 pandemic likely resulted from a lab leak in China, according to a classified intelligence report provided to the White House and key lawmakers recently. FBI Director Christopher Wray said recently on Fox News that a lab leak was the likely origin of the virus.
No US federal agencies have produced conclusive evidence of a lab leak.
Next Steps in Response
Once known, Wenstrup said, Congress can mount a response. That response could have implications for the US-China relationship.
Democrats say they’re skeptical Republicans will simply pivot to policy solutions in the near future.
Last Congress, Democratic and Republican leaders reached agreement on a slate of measures meant to bolster the nation’s pandemic response, streamlining roles at the Department of Health and Human Services around preparedness and requiring the top role at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be confirmed by the Senate. They rejected other proposals considered, such as a nonpartisan commission to investigate the nation’s response to the virus and the origins of Covid.
A group of 11 Senate Republicans, led by Sens. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have pushed for nearly two years to ban research that enhances a virus’s ability to spread or cause disease. It has no Democratic supporters.
Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House’s special Covid panel, said Thursday he welcomes an investigation into the origins of Covid, and that a lab leak could mean better international agreements around laboratory safety are needed.
“If it was a lab leak, we should ask the question: how do we prevent it in the future from leaking out of foreign countries?” he said.
Asked whether he’s in active talks with Republicans about a pandemic preparedness package, Ruiz said none are underway but he’s “hopeful” those will start soon.
“That’s my wish,” he said in an interview.
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