Hiltzik: House GOP COVID investigation derailed

Peter J. Hotez is one of America's leading vaccine experts. He is a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development, which has developed and licensed vaccines. a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine which is widespread in the developing world.

He is also one of our most prominent critics of the anti-vaccination and anti-science movements that have so thoroughly infected our public discourse – most recently in his 2023 book “The deadly rise of anti-science: Warning from a scientist.” I have often quoted him on that theme in my columns.

But the 66-year-old Hotez has had nothing to do with research into the origins of COVID-19, which would probably be the House of Representatives' most important research topic. Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Anyone who wants my emails and can put up with the Qanon, Putin and Nazi threats is more than welcome with them.

—Peter Hotez

So that begs the question why the subcommittee chose to post a tweet about Hotez on Monday, completely out of the blue.

The tweet accused Hotez of complicity in an attempt by David Morens of the National Institutes of Health to evade freedom of information investigations by using a private, rather than official, email account. While these things are happening, the tweet exposes Hotez to public shaming on social media and possibly physical harm.

The tweet read as follows:

'Meet doctor Peter Hotez. Friend and potential accomplice of Dr. Fauci's senior advisor – Dr. David Morens. New evidence suggests that Dr. Hotez regularly with Dr. Morens communicated about FOIA evasion tactics and the origins of COVID-19.”

Also on Monday the subcommittee requested by letter that Hotez turn over all documents and communications between him and six federal agencies and 25 individuals, most of whom are scientists researching the origins of COVID. The letter alleged that Hotez was “involved in frequent email conversations” with Morens and Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance “regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.”

A subcommittee spokesperson told me by email that the reason for targeting Hotez is that among the 30,000 pages of emails Morens provided for her investigation, “Dr. Thousands of Hotez are involved.” However, in its letter, the panel cited only two emails; there is evidence in the files it released that to the extent Hotez is “involved” in emails with Morens, this is as an addressee in group conversations with other scientists.

The spokesperson also stated that “Dr. Hotez has had relevant communications regarding the origins of COVID-19 with not only many individuals within the federal government and other scientists relevant to our research, but also with Chinese scientists and researchers.” But if she knew that, why would she have to ask Hotez to provide the communications? It's clearly on a fishing expedition.

Be that as it may, the panel's letter does not contain any evidence that Hotez was “a potential accomplice” of Morens, let alone justify singling him out via tweet. The Democratic members of the subcommittee, whom I previously condemned for their cowardly and shameful complicity in the panel's attack on Daszak, did not respond to my request for comment.

The tweet and letter show how far the subcommittee has gone off the rails; her research has degenerated into a campaign to smear legitimate scientists engaged in what is perhaps the most important public health need of our time: preparing to fight the next pandemic by understanding the last one.

The message, notes scientist and science writer Philipp Markolin, is crystal clear. It is “speak out against us and our political myth-making, and we will publicly smear and punish you with the power of the state.”

As I wrote, to advance this campaign, the subcommittee has put respected scientists in the dock, publicly shaming them, misrepresenting their research and ridiculing the scientific method. It has stigmatized the EcoHealth Alliance and its president, Peter Daszak, and prompted government bureaucrats to cut off their funding.

On Monday, the subcommittee took aim at Fauci, a respected expert in virology and immunology who was director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 38 years and a key figure in the development of therapies to combat HIV infections.

That hearing was halted entirely when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) shed a tear and accused Fauci of killing dogs and asserted that “he belongs in jail.” The panel did everything it could to get Greene to keep his mouth shut so the hearing could proceed. But that was just one of many negatives as the Republican majority met our worst expectations.

Instead of responsibly investigating the origins of COVID, the subcommittee dug down a series of rabbit holes. Evidence has been sought that Fauci manipulated a scientific paper to “suppress” scientific findings that the pandemic originated from a leak from a Chinese virology institute.

That effort failed because not only is there no evidence to support it, but because Fauci's own evidence shows that Fauci has urged investigators to notify law enforcement authorities if they determine that a lab leak actually occurred. As I have reported, scientific opinion overwhelmingly supports the theory that the pandemic originated in a transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID, from infected wild animals to humans.

The subcommittee is also fixated on evidence that Morens deliberately attempted to circumvent public records laws and NIH policies by conducting some of his correspondence with NIH-funded scientists through private emails, at least of which he wrongly thought they would protect them from freedom of information requests. The members may be right about Morens' activities, but that doesn't bring them – after 15 months of running – any closer to the origins of COVID.

Which brings us back to the attack on Hotez. He appears to have been an innocent bystander to the subcommittee's character assassination campaign against Fauci and other leaders in the COVID investigation, until the panel tried to drag him through the quagmire it created.

Hotez did not participate in research into the origins of COVID; he mentioned that study in his book on anti-science, but only as an illustration of how the lab leak theory became part of the misinformation epidemic associated with COVID. That epidemic includes misrepresentations about the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccines, an area in which Hotez has significant expertise.

So let's examine the subcommittee's claims about Hotez.

How many emails are behind the subcommittee's claim in its letter to Hotez that “you were involved in frequent email discussions” with Morens and Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic”?

Two, according to the letter itself and the file with emails released by the subcommittee as evidence in its investigation into Morens.

Both emails were cited in the subcommittee's letter to Hotez. But neither has anything to do with the origins of COVID-19. In a, Hotez tells Morens in a joking tone to which he “sent a lot of emails [Fauci] over the years, but I don't think there's anything incriminating.”

The second referred to an email that Morens mistakenly sent to Hotez, but was intended for Daszak; Hotez wrote back to tell Morens that he sent the email to the wrong Peterwhich Morens promptly acknowledged.

The panel's letter, issued under the signature of its chairman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), rather gleefully points out that Hotez responded to his tweet by stating, also by tweet, that “anyone who reads my emails wants and the Qanon, Putin and Nazi threats are more than welcome to them. Some I have published in my books, others in my articles about anti-science and anti-Semitism.”

The members seemed to regard that as an official offer, and not as a biting joke. But it's unclear whether Hotez even has the authority to comply with the subcommittee's demand, since he conducts all his correspondence through his Baylor email account. That suggests the decision on whether and how to respond would be in Baylor's hands; the school has not yet responded to the subcommittee.

The fact is that the subcommittee wasted almost a year and a half chasing a chimera. Members have talked endlessly about their responsibility to safeguard taxpayers' money. But how much has she wasted in this futile, unreliable investigation?

Wenstrup and his colleagues may be unaware that their public smears of Hotez could put him in the crosshairs of people who want to do him harm. He was last year too approached in front of his house by two anti-vaccine agitators demanding he meet with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. debates the safety of vaccines. In his book he reproduced vituperative emails, including one in which he was called “a living Mengele.”

That is the atmosphere that pervades the public discussion about science in the US today. The Select Subcommittee has done its best to contribute to this toxic miasma. It must urgently withdraw its statement about Hotez. And the Democrats on the subcommittee must speak out about their Republican colleagues' invasion of scientists' privacy and their vilification of science and scientists in general. If they remain silent, they cannot avoid responsibility for the consequences.

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