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US House Worries about Lab Safety after COVID Pandemic, Fauci Smugly Dismisses any Concern

House Worries About Lab Safety After COVID Pandemic

April 28, 2023 (Updated): Over three years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, biosafety experts told the House what steps might reduce the likelihood of a similar disaster.

“We still do not know how the COVID-19 pandemic started. However, more information has heightened our suspicions that the origin of the pandemic was linked to a lab incident,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, in her opening statement at an April 27 hearing of that committee’s oversight subcommittee.

The lab leak theory was often dismissed during the early stages of the pandemic, with Dr. Anthony Fauci denouncing the notion of a lab leak in April 2020 as a “destructive conspiracy theory.”

Image above: Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Yet, official opinions have shifted.

The Department of Energy and many scientists now believe COVID-19 originated with a lab leak in China.

A recent COVID-19 origins report released by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a medical doctor, concluded that “the preponderance of information supports the plausibility of an unintentional research-related incident.”

Image above: Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) walks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 7, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Suspicions have fallen on the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) via EcoHealth Alliance.

Subcommittee Chair Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said in his opening statement that NIH has “stonewalled and slow-walked our document requests related to Ecohealth Alliance grants.”

While Republicans criticized the NIH, Democrats used their opening remarks to defend America’s major federal scientific institutions. “We also need to discuss the training and safety measures that are already in place in high-containment labs to reduce risk,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the committee’s ranking member.

Image above: Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on May 27, 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Several years after outspoken scientific defectors on the COVID-19 consensus faced censorship, termination, and other negative consequences for speaking out, Pallone told his colleagues that the current “tenor” of the debate on biosafety and biosecurity “is having a chilling effect on scientific research.”

“We have seen scientists, including some of our top public health officials, maligned, marginalized, taken out of context, and accused of covering up the origins of COVID-19,” he said.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) suggested that some proposals floated by Republicans could undercut America’s global leadership on science.

“If America does not lead the world in infectious disease research, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] will try to fill that role,” she said.

US vs World

Gregory Koblentz, an associate professor and biodefense expert at George Mason University, detailed the United States’ performance on biosafety and biosecurity in written testimony.

On biosafety–the specific practices used to handle biological agents at minimal risk–the United States does well, along with most other countries Koblentz studied.

On biosecurity–the steps taken to “protect microbial agents from loss, theft, diversion or intentional misuse”–the U.S. is tied for #1, but the global picture is grimmer.

“Only 12 out of the 27 countries with BSL-4 labs scored high, with nine countries scoring medium and six low,” Koblentz testified.

BSL-4 (biosafety level 4) laboratories are at the top of the biosafety hierarchy. They handle deadly pathogens, including the Ebola virus and the Marburg virus.

China’s first BSL-4 lab was the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Castor asked Koblentz if greater cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) is the right strategy for addressing risks from laboratories outside the United States.

Image above: The World Health Organization (WHO) logo is seen in Geneva, Switzerland, on Dec. 3, 2019. (Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)

He recommended what he called a “two-pronged approach.” “Working through organizations like the WHO and the Biological Weapons Convention can enable us to set international standards,” he said.

“At the same time, we also need to have more focused efforts that are working with the countries that are perhaps developing their first BSL-4 laboratory, and so they need to build up the legal and regulatory infrastructure and expertise, as well as the training for their personnel who’ll be working there,” he added.

Independent Agency Recommended

Koblentz told Griffith biosafety and biosecurity at America’s research facilities could potentially be managed by an independent agency, perhaps similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Both he and Rocco Casagrande, board chair of Gryphon Scientific, said that a database compiling near misses would also be helpful.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a medical doctor, questioned another expert, Bob Hawley, along similar lines.

Hawley once led the Safety and Radiation Protection Division at Fort Detrick, the hub of America’s biodefense research program.

Image above: Military Personnel stand guard outside the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick on Sept. 26, 2002. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Hawley called for “a national database so that we can all share and learn from what happened without any negative consequences.”

In written testimony, he cited the National Transportation Safety Board Aviation Accident Database and Synopses database as one of several possible models.

He counseled against an overly punitive approach.

The threat of punishment for alerting others to a near miss “has a tendency to drive these incidents underground, so they’re never reported,” he said.

“I think that is so important,” Burgess said.

“Maybe that could have avoided some of the difficulties that we see now with EcoHealth Alliance,” he added.


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