GOP gets scalps in COVID investigation, but origins of virus still a mystery

The Republican Party-controlled subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic appears to be influencing the Biden administration with its extensive investigations targeting groups and individuals with links to the unproven COVID-19 laboratory leak theory.

Over the past month, the Subcommittee heard testimony from Chairman Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance and Lawrence Tabak, Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It also brought in David Morens, a top deputy to former COVID czar Anthony Fauci, who was questioned over damning revelations about his conduct.

The purpose of these hearings was to establish a timeline of what happened between federal officials and EcoHealth before and after the COVID-19 outbreak, and whether any of it may have contributed to the global health crisis.

Seemingly coinciding with these hearings, the White House has taken steps to bar EcoHealth and Daszak from receiving federal funds. And committee members believe they had a hand in these decisions.

“I think the subcommittee had an impact on EcoHealth by exposing what was happening,” Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.) told The Hill.

“But I don't think the subcommittee has used its influence for good in the way it could have. So that was one small positive thing that the committee did,” Ross added. “But there are so many missed opportunities for bipartisan work with this committee that it almost breaks my heart.”

Despite a series of reports and hearings, neither the commission nor federal agencies appear any closer to identifying the origins of the virus that has killed nearly 1.2 million Americans and continues to grow.

EcoHealth is a nonprofit infectious disease organization that has received federal grants to study emerging viruses. The organization in turn awarded grants to laboratories, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which conducted research into coronaviruses. Critics, including GOP members of the subcommittee, have questioned whether the WIV investigation resulted in a laboratory leak that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although this theory has not been proven, federal health officials have repeatedly accused EcoHealth of failing to properly monitor WIV and other sub-grant recipients, and of failing to submit timely progress reports.

The administration maintains its decision to move forward with excluding EcoHealth from federal funds, which was an “independent action.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not comment on the timing of the funding cuts when requested by The Hill. They pointed to previous statements saying the move came after a “thorough investigation” that found EcoHealth “did not comply with federal regulations and grant requirements.”

Subcommittee Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) has made it clear that he believes the timing is no coincidence.

“Just two weeks after the Select Subcommittee issued a comprehensive report detailing EcoHealth's misconduct and recommending the formal expulsion of EcoHealth and its president, HHS has begun efforts to end all U.S. funding to this corrupt organization,” he said in a statement shortly after the announcement was made.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle share EcoHealth's bipartisan rebuke and its apparent failure to adhere to federal requirements, a rare occurrence for the panel that has been sharply divided by partisan fighting since its creation in 2020.

While Democrats have joined in condemning misconduct, several members have been quick to point out what this testimony failed to accomplish: establishing the origins of COVID-19, one of the panel's main goals after Republicans took power taken over.

Instead, these hearings have largely had the effect of embarrassing federal health agencies like the NIH and current and former officials, including Fauci.

This dynamic was perfectly captured during the most recent subcommittee hearing involving Morens, the senior advisor to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), who worked closely with Fauci during his tenure as director of the desk.

Morens' published emails showed apparent attempts to conduct official business outside the scope of Freedom of Information Act requests, deletion of federal records, misogynistic comments about fellow federal health officials, and poorly worded jokes indicating a quid pro quo relationship with Daszak from EcoHealth.

Subcommittee member Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) blasted Morens, accusing him of betraying the public trust and misusing federal resources. But he reiterated that the hearing appeared to deviate from the panel's purpose.

“Dr. Morens' testimony today is not a breakthrough moment in actually understanding the true origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ruiz added. “For the fact is that the origin of the novel coronavirus remains unclear to this day.”

After nearly two hours of questioning, Morens said he used his personal email account to “avoid more embarrassment and danger” for Daszak, who has been a prime target of COVID lab leak theorists.

During the hearing, the NIAID adviser publicly apologized for numerous missteps documented in his emails. Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii) directly asked Morens to apologize for how his actions have affected the rest of the federal workforce.

“Can you say that you will actually apologize for violating your shared obligation to serve American taxpayers with the utmost respect for transparency and accountability, for failing Americans? Would you like to apologize for that?” Tokuda asked.

Morens disputed the use of the word “betrayed” but said he was not proud of his behavior.

In an email to Daszak, Morens suggested that Fauci was trying to “protect” EcoHealth as a grant recipient. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) asked Morens if he had ever discussed EcoHealth with Fauci.

“He referred or alluded to things that were in the press. I don't even think he said what it was, but it was about… I assumed it was about Peter's subsidies and press releases about it and the termination of the subsidy,” said Morens.

“I said to him, 'Tony, I know you would never have been involved in getting rid of that subsidy.' And he didn't respond. He just looked at me,” he added.

Another email to Daszak, which was copied from other federal COVID advisers, seemed to suggest that Fauci was aware of inappropriate behavior but was trying to protect himself from it.

“I can send things to Tony via his private gmail, or hand them over to him at work or at his home. He is too smart to let colleagues send him things that could cause problems,” Morens wrote to the president of EcoHealth.

Fauci himself will testify before the subcommittee on June 3. This is the first time he has participated in a congressional hearing since leaving his government position.

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