Republicans have stepped up their attacks on Democrats and the White House over the origins of the pandemic, after a new assessment by the energy department and comments from the FBI bolstered the theory that Covid-19 sprung from a Chinese laboratory.
The Biden administration has not reached a consensus on the genesis of the virus, but Republicans who championed the leak hypothesis when it was considered a fringe theory back in 2020 have said recent developments amount to a vindication of their views.
“This was promoted as a conspiracy theory by this administration, by the media, by Democrats, by the [National Institutes of Health], by Dr [Anthony] Fauci,” said Joni Ernst, the Republican senator from Iowa, speaking to reporters this week. “What a turnaround in three years.”
The energy department’s new assessment in favour of the lab leak theory was contained in a classified document reported by US media. The agency has not commented further on the judgment, which was reportedly made with “low confidence”, meaning it is based on little evidence.
Nevertheless, it was reinforced by comments made to Fox News this week by Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, the other US agency that believes Covid originated in a lab.
“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” Wray told Fox News. “You’re talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab that killed millions of Americans.”
Jim Jordan, a senior Republican from Ohio in the House of Representatives, suggested the assessment from the energy department raised additional questions about the pandemic response, including lockdowns, vaccine mandates and other restrictions that have long been conservative targets.
“Why did they lie about #COVID’s origins? Why did they lie about gain-of-function research? Why did they lie about natural immunity?” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Meanwhile, several members of the bipartisan China committee in the House of Representatives focused on the question of China and Covid-19 when the panel held its inaugural public hearing this week.
US officials stress the intelligence community has not reached any consensus on the origins of the pandemic. Some officials believe it will be very hard to reach a definitive conclusion, partly because China has been unwilling to share all the relevant data with the US.
“There [are] a variety of views in the intelligence community. Some . . . have reached conclusions on one side, some on the other,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last weekend. “A number of them have said they just don’t have enough information to be sure.”
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, defended President Joe Biden on Wednesday, saying he had ordered the US government to dig into the origins of the pandemic in the first place.
“He went to the intelligence community and said, ‘We need to figure out how to get to the bottom of this. We need to figure out how this all occurred.’ Because . . . we have to try and prevent any future pandemics,” Jean-Pierre said.
But Republican criticism has become more pronounced this week. Bill Hagerty, a Republican senator from Tennessee, attacked the World Health Organization for being “very quick to dismiss” the possibility that a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology might have caused the pandemic.
“I do believe accountability is important with the WHO as well when it comes to Covid’s origins,” Hagerty said at a hearing with Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general. “The lab leak theory is one of those possibilities [of Covid’s origins], and I don’t think it’s proper to discount a theory until it has been properly investigated,” Hagerty added.
The origins debate is likely to resurface more frequently as more Republicans enter the race for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination. China is expected to be a crucial issue in any challenge to Biden for the White House.
The issue has proven to be another thorn in the side of broader US-China relations, which are already frayed due to China’s military activity around Taiwan, the Chinese spy balloon, and claims from the Biden administration that Beijing may be considering sending ammunition to help Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“It is critical the administration also begin to work immediately with our partners and allies around the world to both hold the [Chinese Communist party] accountable and to put in place updated international regulations to ensure something like this cannot happen again,” said Michael McCaul, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.