By Cathy He
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Maggie Hassan (N.H.) are set to lead the first congressional hearing on gain-of-function research as part of his ongoing efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hearing, scheduled for Aug. 3, comes amid intensifying Republican scrutiny on whether a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) caused the pandemic, as well as possible U.S. funding ties to the gain-of-function research at the facility. Gain-of-function involves enhancing a virus to make it more potent or transmissible.
Titled “Revisiting Gain-of-Function Research: What the Pandemic Taught Us and Where Do We Go From Here,” the hearing will be held by the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight, of which Hassan and Paul are chair and ranking member respectively.
More than two years since the emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, international efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic have produced little, largely due to the Chinese regime’s persistent refusal to allow independent investigators to access crucial health data from the early stages of the pandemic and records from the WIV.
But the U.S. State Department and experts have flagged circumstantial evidence pointing to a lab leak from the WIV as a possible source of the pandemic, including evidence of WIV’s gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses, reports that staff members became sick with symptoms consistent with both seasonal flu and COVID-19 in the fall of 2019, before the Chinese regime acknowledged the outbreak, and that a WIV public database of 22,000 samples and viral sequences was taken offline in September 2019 before the onset of the outbreak.
“Gain-of-function research has historically been supported by tax dollars both domestically and internationally; as such, this hearing lies at the intersection of the subcommittee’s two primary jurisdictional responsibilities–monitoring emerging threats and conducting oversight of federal spending,” said an emailed statement from Paul’s office.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) had previously suspended funding of all gain-of-function projects citing the dangers of the research, the senator’s office noted, but this was lifted in 2017 after a special review committee was established to manage the risks.
“However, serious questions remain about whether that protocol is sufficient to protect the U.S. and the world from the potential negative consequences of this research,” the statement continued.
“Moreover, the debate over what gain-of-function research is and what it is not, is not settled.”
The NIH has drawn rising criticism from Paul and other Republican lawmakers for its funding of research conducted at WIV via New York-based health nonprofit EcoHealth, including one grant that amounted to what some experts have described as gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses—an allegation denied by NIH leadership.
The hearing comes a week after Paul sought to introduce an amendment to the $280 billion CHIPS Act that would ban all U.S. funding of gain-of-function research in China. The move was objected to by Democrats, even though the Senate had previously unanimously agreed to the measure in a 2021 version of the bill.
In remarks on the Senate floor, the Kentucky senator said “there’s a great deal of evidence that this pandemic arose out of the [Wuhan] lab.”
“The emergence of COVID serves as a reminder that dangerous research conducted in a secretive and totalitarian country is simply too risky to fund,” Paul said on July 26.
Witnesses at the Wednesday hearing include Dr. Richard H. Ebright, laboratory director of Waksman Institute of Microbiology, Dr. Steven Quay, chief executive officer at Atossa Therapeutics, Inc., and Dr. Kevin M. Esvelt, assistant professor of Media Arts & Sciences of MIT Media Lab.