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Chairman Brad Wenstrup leads a hearing with the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, July 11 2023 in Washington, DC.

Brad Wenstrup, a Republican representative from Ohio, is chair of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty

US House Republicans have accused the authors of a 2020 commentary in a scientific journal of colluding with government officials to stifle conversation about COVID-19 origins. Two of the authors, Kristian Andersen, an evolutionary biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, and Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, appeared before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic on 11 July to categorically deny these allegations.

Rumours spread in early 2020 that SARS-CoV-2 was a Chinese bioweapon created at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. So, Andersen, Garry and their co-authors looked to the available genomic data to determine whether the sections that encode the spike protein — which the virus uses to gain entry to cells — showed signs of genetic engineering. The scientists published their findings as a commentary in Nature Medicine1, in which they concluded that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. (Nature is editorially independent of Nature Medicine. Nature‘s news team is independent of its journal team.)

The US intelligence community is split on the origin of the pandemic. The scientists nevertheless stood by their original assessment at the hearing. They noted that, although there are many possible scenarios for the origin of the pandemic, the available scientific data only support a natural origin, making it the only plausible and probable theory, they testified.

Whereas some scientists have said that the authors’ emphatic conclusion might have been premature in March 2020 as the pandemic was just beginning, they say that the tone of the hearing served only to further politicize the origins conversation. “This is a very antagonistic set-up which doesn’t do anyone any favours,” says Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity researcher at King’s College London. With the way that the hearing was framed, she says, “We all lose.”

A change of mind

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The polarization of US politics was on full display at Tuesday’s hearing. While Republican members of the committee hammered Andersen and Garry with allegations of conflicts of interest and collusion with government scientists, Democratic members praised the scientists’ work and accused the Republicans of making it more difficult to uncover the true origin of the pandemic.

Republicans pointed to e-mails between the authors and former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) head Anthony Fauci, as well as other internal correspondences, as evidence that there was a concerted effort to downplay the likelihood that scientists had intentionally or accidentally caused the pandemic. Andersen initially raised the possibility that the virus was engineered in a 1 February 2020 teleconference call attended by Fauci and organized by Jeremy Farrar, then head of the London-based Wellcome Trust. But days later, after further analysis, he and his colleagues concluded that the theory was implausible. This became the basis for the Nature Medicine paper. Committee chair Brad Wenstrup, a Republican representative from Ohio, and others said that it was suspicious how quickly Andersen changed his mind. Andersen said that updating a hypothesis after analysing the data is “textbook science in action”.

Republicans also alleged that Fauci and former National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins were not only involved in drafting the manuscript, but also conditioned an US$8.9-million NIAID grant on the scientists’ support of the natural-origin theory. Andersen denied these allegations, adding that Fauci encouraged him to publish a paper outlining the case for a lab origin if that’s what his analysis had shown. He also said that reviewers scored his NIAID grant application in autumn 2019, and so its outcome had effectively already been decided.

Meanwhile, Raul Ruiz, a Democratic representative from California on the committee, lamented that the hearing did not bring politicians, scientists or the public any closer to resolving the origins debate or to crafting policy that would address the threat of future pandemics. “This isn’t about building trust in public health,” he said at the hearing. “This is about tearing it down, manufacturing distrust and scoring political points.”

Fear and loathing

Researchers who spoke to Nature agree that the accusatory tone of the hearing is not conducive to the collaboration necessary to learn lessons from the COVID-19-pandemic response and plan for the next one.

Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland, says that it’s valuable for Congress to seek scientists who have a range of views on the origins of the pandemic. But having them “testify to what they were saying to each other in the earliest days of the pandemic doesn’t make sense”, he says. He adds that the approach “is creating fear in the scientific community”. Andersen testified that he has received countless threatening e-mails and calls, and had found his name on online “kill lists” as a result of these accusations.

Lentzos says that until the global community has more definitive evidence as to the origin of SARS-CoV-2, it will be important to both fund research that helps to track emerging viruses in animals and craft policy to ensure that research done in scientific laboratories is low risk. This is especially important as more high-security biocontainment facilities have sprung up around the world, she says.

She adds that the world needs to be better prepared for another outbreak with ambiguous origins. That means garnering international support for procedures that set the norms and expectations for how to investigate these questions.

David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in California, says that it would have been much more productive to hold a hearing focused on understanding what data are necessary to determine the origin of the next pandemic and how to verify the quality and sources of these data.

There are lessons for scientists from this debacle, Relman says. The Chinese government has stonewalled efforts for investigators to collect crucial data, he says, so he wishes that the commentary’s authors acknowledged more uncertainty in their conclusions.

More than three years have passed since the pandemic began and the international community isn’t much closer to understanding its origins. “I worry about our tolerance for uncertainty and the tempo with which we demand explanation,” Relman says.

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