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COVID’s origins, revisited


WORLD Radio - COVID’s origins, revisited

The White House and Congress take different paths in response to new lab leak report

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre listens as National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Washington AP Photo/Evan Vucci

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 9th of March, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

First up, COVID’s origins revisited.

Three years ago this week, The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Ever since the virus came out of Wuhan, China, there’s been controversy, whether it had to do with masks or lockdowns or vaccines. But one controversy is back in the news, and it returns to the very beginning--where did COVID-19 actually come from?

REICHARD: Last Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a classified report from the US Department of Energy contained new intelligence pointing to COVID-19 coming from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. According to the Journal, the White House and members of Congress received that report, and then went different directions with it.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: The day after the Journal broke the story. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre was joined by John Kirby of the National Security Council. When asked about the DOE report, Kirby had this to say

JOHN KIRBY: There is not a consensus right now, in the US government about exactly how COVID started, what the President wants is facts. He wants the whole government designed to go get those facts. And that's what we're doing. And we're just not there yet. And when we're there yet, and if we have something that is, is, is ready to be briefed to the American people in the Congress, then we're going to do that.

REICHARD: Later, Jean-Pierre was asked if the White House would declassify the report.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: What I can tell you and reiterate from here, as he has said, as the National Security Advisor has said many times on on the airwaves yesterday, which is that the President wants to get to the bottom of this because he thinks it's incredibly important to figure out to get a sense of where COVID-19 originated from.

REPORTER: So does the administration first need to find the consensus before declassifying some of these assessments or, you know, why not put out everything?

JEAN-PIERRE: I think it's basically what we've been saying there has been no consensus. So I think they're working through that the intelligence community is working through, through getting to the bottom of this, as the President has directed and as the President wants to see, certainly not going to get into ahead of their process.

REICHARD: But one member of the intelligence community decided not to wait for internal consensus before speaking up.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.

REICHARD: FBI director Christopher Wray heard there in an interview with Fox News.

WRAY: The FBI has folks who focus specifically on the dangers of biological threats, which include things like novel viruses like COVID, and the concerns that they're in the wrong hands, the threats that those those could pose. So here, you're talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government controlled lab that killed millions of Americans. And that's precisely what that capability was designed for.

REICHARD: Back in 2021, the FBI was the first federal agency to report that COVID-19 Most likely originated in the Wuhan lab. Three days after the Wall Street Journal report, Republican senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Braun of Indiana introduced a bill that would require the Director of National Intelligence to declassify the report from the DOE.

JOSH HAWLEY: We're here tonight for a very simple reason with a very simple proposition: that the American people deserve to know about the origins of COVID-19. They deserve to know how this terrible pandemic, that has ravaged the globe and our country, how it got started, and what China's role was in starting it. Well, I think it's time that the American people got to decide for themselves, it's time that they actually got to see the evidence that the United States government has collected on this issue. And that is exactly what the measure that we are introducing here tonight would do. It would make available to the American people the evidence that the United States government has about the origins of this terrible virus and this terrible pandemic.

REICHARD: Senator Braun argued that the best way to arrive at the truth is not waiting for intelligence officials to arrive at consensus, but to have an open conversation about what the government knows so far.

MIKE BRAUN: Who disagrees with transparency, the sunshine that reveals everything? I was in a committee hearing. And when you get Dr. Fauci, Dr. Collins, first acknowledging that transparency is paramount. And that yes, we should declassify this information. I think that is why here this evening, this will go through with unanimous consent, because it makes sense and wherever it leads us, we should be happy that we finally might get to the bottom of this.

REICHARD: Later in the evening, the bill passed the Senate unanimously. Again, Senator Hawley.

HAWLEY: It's always a first step, but the truth is always the right step. And that's the action that we've taken tonight, I yield the floor.

REICHARD: The next day, House Representative Mike Gallagher introduced a companion bill to the Senate COVID-19 Origin Act of 2023. In a press release, Gallagher said, quoting here, “The question of how this pandemic began is the most important question in the world. And we should not continue to waste precious time waiting for the Chinese Communist Party to suddenly cooperate with US officials and open up access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It's time for Congress to act and force the administration to declassify the relevant intelligence surrounding the pandemic.”

While the Senate bill passed unanimously, some Democrats in the House have suggested that they may reject the bill. Pete Aguilar, the Democratic Caucus Chairman said, quoting here, “Declassification conversations are best left to the executive.”

WORLD reporter Emma Freire says these two approaches are about to come to a head.

EMMA FREIRE, REPORTER: Despite the opposition of some Democrats, this bill is very likely to pass and then President Joe Biden will have to sign it. Now the White House hasn't yet indicated if he will veto the bill. But the pressure on him not to veto will be huge, especially because the Senate version passed unanimously.

REICHARD: whatever happens next, getting to the bottom of COVID origins will have serious consequences.

FREIRE: If the virus was man-made, then that demands some kind of response. It's very difficult to say what exactly that response should be. But it does need to be there. And that would be very complicated for America's already very complicated relationship with China. So the idea that the virus had natural origins is perhaps politically more convenient, it means no one is really responsible for this. And so there's a strong political incentive to keep the origins vague to avoid having to ask a lot of difficult questions.

REICHARD: WORLD’s Emma Freire.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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