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The House's attempt to shed new light on COVID-19's origins

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a House select panel looking into the coronavirus pandemic, and today marked a new wave of efforts by Congress to get to the bottom of COVID-19's origin story. Here's committee chairman Republican Brad Wenstrup of Ohio at the panel's first hearing under GOP control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAD WENSTRUP: Discovering the origins is vital. It matters for the future of the world. And we aren't finished. We're just beginning.

SHAPIRO: The hearing was also punctuated by fights over partisan divides and controversial claims. We're joined now by NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales and NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel to tell us more. Good to have you both here.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey there.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: So, Claudia, Democrats launched this panel in the last Congress, but Republicans kept it going with new leadership. What's changed?

GRISALES: Right. This is a House oversight committee subpanel. It was previously focused on the Trump administration under Democrats, but now it's led by Chairman Wenstrup, who you heard there at the top. This is a doctor from Ohio. And for Democrats, who are also being led by a doctor on this panel - that is California's Raul Ruiz - he touched on new Democratic worries that extreme partisan rhetoric could now overtake probes by this committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAUL RUIZ: If we truly want to follow the evidence, the truth is that the evidence as we have it now is inconclusive.

GRISALES: Still, Republicans argued the investigation into the origins of COVID have been ignored and stymied, so it's catch-up time for them. And it's also a reminder this panel is still pretty far apart along this partisan divide.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. One of the most contentious parts of the debate has been Republican efforts to tie the lab leak theory to U.S. public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci. So, Geoff, did that come up in today's hearing?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, it came up several times. The claim here is that Fauci and others tried to suppress discussion of a leak from a lab for various self-interested reasons. I actually spoke to Fauci right after the hearing, and he vigorously denied that claim - said he'd be happy to talk to the committee himself. Interestingly, the Republicans' own witnesses didn't seem interested in discussing it much either. Former CDC director Robert Redfield said he thought that Fauci did inappropriately redirect the debate early on, but he doesn't think it was a cover-up. And another Republican witness, Jamie Metzl of the Atlantic Council, said that focusing too much on Fauci risked taking the focus off the real problem, which, in his opinion, was the Chinese government's refusal to share vital data on the origins of COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMIE METZL: If we make it primarily about Dr. Fauci, we will be inappropriately serving the Chinese government a propaganda coup on a silver platter.

BRUMFIEL: Republicans on the panel did spend a lot of their time talking about the idea that this came from a Chinese government lab, reiterating that belief over and over.

SHAPIRO: And, Claudia, what did Democrats spend most of their time talking about?

GRISALES: Right. We heard members such as Jamie Raskin of Maryland say, regardless of the origin of the pandemic, it will not remove blame from former President Trump and his role in not doing more to stop the spread of coronavirus. Democrats also zeroed in on a controversial witness who was invited by Republicans. This is Nicholas Wade. He wrote a book that was popular among white supremacists for its theories about race and genetic background. It was disavowed by more than 100 scientists. And this triggered several combative moments today, including one between Maryland Democrat Kweisi Mfume and Wade, who rejected claims he was racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICHOLAS WADE: I am not a racist. They don't have anything in common with the views of white supremacists just...

KWEISI MFUME: They love you, though.

WADE: ...Just because David Duke likes my book.

MFUME: All of them love you.

GRISALES: That said, there are opportunities here for both sides to work together. In the coming days, we're expecting a strong bipartisan vote in the House on legislation pushing U.S. intelligence officials to declassify more information related to the origins of COVID.

SHAPIRO: And finally, Geoff, how did this hearing stack up in terms of the science?

BRUMFIEL: You know, most of the witnesses called to this hearing believed it's more likely coronavirus came from a laboratory. In scientific circles, I'd say the majority view is still that it likely came from animals in the wild. There was no real new evidence here, and what we heard was circumstantial. It all ties back to the fact that there was a lab studying coronaviruses in the city where the outbreak began. That shouldn't be discounted or anything, but there's strong genetic and epidemiological evidence linking the outbreak to a market where live animals were bought and sold. Unfortunately, it's going to be really hard to figure this out without China's cooperation, and that was something everyone seemed to agree on - China was not helping to figure out where this came from.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel and Claudia Grisales. Thank you both.

GRISALES: Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.