The coronavirus is back. President Joe Biden has announced that the health emergency will expire in May. But the political reappraisal of the pandemic has only just begun. On Wednesday, the committee of inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus met. And the questioning of Robert Redfield, who served under Donald Trump as director of the CDC, made it clear that the serious investigation of what parts of the Republicans and the Democrats are seeking is overshadowed by partisan accusations by the Trumpists, which ostensibly target China, but actually Biden.

Majid Sattar

Political correspondent for North America based in Washington.

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Brad Wenstrup, the Republican chairman of the House Subcommittee, announced that the panel would leave no stone unturned in the investigation to find out the truth. Unfortunately, the question of the origin of the virus has been politicized. It is desirable to have a debate that is free of party politics and based on scientific findings. Some believed, he continued, that the virus had been transmitted naturally from an animal to humans; it is therefore a so-called zoonosis. Others believed it was a laboratory accident at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan.

"The truth is, we don't yet know for sure the origin of the virus," Wenstrup said. One does not have a "smoking gun", no conclusive proof. Unlike other viruses that cause respiratory diseases, the coronavirus is highly contagious. Worldwide, 750 million people have been infected so far. Then he mentioned the so-called function gain research in Wuhan, an institute that received American tax money and is known for poor safety standards. The aim of this research is to make the pathogen more contagious in order to better understand the organism.

Before the Chinese government officially reported the outbreak, employees of the institute had already fallen ill in autumn 2019 and had shown symptoms similar to Covid-19 symptoms, Wenstrup said. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), where immunologist Anthony Fauci worked for decades, supported this risky research in Wuhan. The Bethesda-based institute near Washington had violated its reporting obligations. Then, for reasons not yet known, scientists, including Fauci, would have decided to convince the public not to take the laboratory thesis seriously. So far, all this is only indicative. There was still a lot of work ahead of the committee.

Democrats: Biden backs sweeping investigation

Raul Ruiz, the Democrats' chairman on the committee, stressed that he was open to constructive political conclusions, such as raising international research standards. He also spoke out in favour of debating function gain research. That the Biden administration wanted to suppress this debate, he rejected. The President had initiated a comprehensive assessment of the intelligence services to get to the bottom of the matter. The fact is, however, that the evidence is still contradictory. Therefore, it must now be a matter of science and intelligence services continuing to collect information – without falling into party politics and spreading conspiracy theories that defame health professionals. It must be about drawing political lessons that reduce the threat of future pandemics.

Redfield emphasized in his testimony that after the pandemic began, he had always been in favor of pursuing both theories. From the beginning, he had considered it more likely that a laboratory accident had been the cause of the outbreak. The reason for this was the high risk of infection. The "unusual approach" in Wuhan had also strengthened his view. He never agreed with the view of some that it was pointless to get to the bottom of the origin of the outbreak. For him, the pandemic is proof of the danger posed by functional gain research. However, his view on the origin of the virus was not popular – and he was excluded from conversations that Fauci and other scientists had had.

FBI joins lab thesis

Labor theory is represented by a minority of American intelligence services. For example, FBI Director Christopher Wray recently publicly reiterated the Federal Police's view that the pandemic was "most likely" caused by an incident in a laboratory. "The FBI has been assuming for some time that the origin of the pandemic is most likely a possible laboratory incident in Wuhan." He accused Beijing of obstructing Washington's efforts to investigate the causes of the pandemic. "The Chinese government has done its best to try to thwart and confuse the work here, the work we do, the work our government and close foreign partners are doing." This is unfortunate for everyone. Beijing, however, rejects the accusation.

The US Department of Energy, which is responsible for overseeing laboratories, is also said to have recently endorsed the laboratory thesis due to new intelligence findings – but only with "little confidence". American media quoted people who had read a corresponding report. The intelligence findings that are said to have contributed to this view are not known. Other intelligence services assume a natural transmission. The foreign intelligence service CIA has not yet taken a position on the question.