Scientists argue over the origins of Covid-19 before a US Senate panel

WASHINGTON — Scientists debated the origins of the Covid-19 virus on Tuesday, wondering whether most of the available evidence points to natural transmission of the virus by a wild animal or one designed in a lab and then released through an unintentional leak.

The hearing before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was part of an ongoing effort by Congress to operate lessons learned during the pandemic to prevent or mitigate another outbreak.

Gregory Koblentz, associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University in Virginia, said at the conference: two-hour interrogation there is an ongoing debate in the scientific community about its origins.

“All U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously rejected the possibility of intentionally developing SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon,” Koblentz testified. “Although the intelligence community is divided on the origins of the pandemic, most agencies have determined that the virus was not genetically modified.”

According to the Covid-19 report, residents of Wuhan, China were first diagnosed with an “unusual pneumonia-like illness” in December 2019. timeline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All of the initial cases appeared to be linked to the Huanan seafood wholesale market at the time, although there has since been much speculation about the types of research being conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Koblentz said he believed the available evidence points to transmission of the virus from an animal, although he added that “a research-related accident cannot be ruled out at this time.”

He said the lack of transparency and data from the Chinese government has significantly hampered scientists’ efforts to unite on the origins of Covid-19.

Scientists fight over the laboratory and side effects

Richard Ebright, board professor of chemistry and chemical biology and laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, testified that he believed “the large preponderance of evidence points to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 disease.” 19, leaked to humans as a result of a research incident.”

Ebright also criticized fellow panelist Robert Garry, who, along with several co-authors: published a review article in the journal Nature Medicine in March 2020 under the title “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2.”

In a commentary, Garry and the other scientists wrote, “we do not believe any laboratory scenario is likely.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Ebright said the opinion article represented “scientific misconduct, including fraud,” a claim Garry rejected during the hearing.

“The authors expressed their opinion, but that opinion was not well-reasoned,” Ebright said. “In March 2020, there was no basis to state this as a conclusion and not simply as a hypothesis.”

Garry, a professor and associate dean of the School of Medicine at Tulane University in Louisiana, argued in favor of an external event during the hearing, testifying that the virus likely did not jump directly from bats to humans but instead entered an unidentified animal intermediary.

“Bat coronaviruses are viruses that are transmitted through the gastrointestinal tract,” Garry said. “For such a virus to become a respiratory virus, it will require too many mutations, too many changes, for the bat virus to jump directly to humans. This could only really happen in nature if replicated by an intermediate animal.

Garry also defended the augmentation research at the hearing, arguing it had some beneficial impact, although he noted it required “appropriate safeguards and restrictions.”

Policymakers and experts have used several, often evolving, definitions for research on gain of function in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. American Society of Microbiology defines it as techniques “used in research to change the body’s functions so that it is able to do more than usual.”

Garry testified that “responsibly conducted” research on highly infectious and pathogenic viruses can lead to advances in public health and national security.

“Without gain-of-function research, we wouldn’t have Tamiflu. Without gain-of-function research, we would not have a vaccine to prevent cancer caused by human papillomavirus infection, Garry said. “Without gain-of-function studies, we won’t be able to determine how modern viruses infect us. And if we don’t know how they infect us, we can’t develop appropriate treatments and cures for the next potential pandemic virus.”

Supervision of financing and research

New Hampshire Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan asked several questions about whether there is sufficient oversight of how U.S. research dollars are spent and what mechanisms exist to monitor how private entities conduct certain types of research.

“While their research has the potential to cure diseases and boost our economy, unless they accept federal funding, there is very little federal oversight to ensure private labs engage in safe and ethical research,” she said.

Koblentz of George Mason University said there is much less oversight of biosecurity and biosecurity for private research facilities that do not receive federal funding.

“To expand oversight to all privately funded research would require legislative action,” Koblentz said.

Congress, he said, should create a national biological risk management agency that would have authority over biosecurity and biodefense “regardless of funding source.”

“Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter where the funding comes from when it comes to ensuring research is safe and accountable,” Koblentz said.

Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, the committee’s No. 1 ranking member, said the panel will hold an upcoming hearing focused mainly on the enhancement study and what steps Congress should take to ensure it doesn’t put the public at risk.

The next pandemic

Committee Chairman Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, said during the hearing that lawmakers “must learn from the challenges of this pandemic to better protect Americans from potential biological incidents in the future.”

“Our government needs the flexibility to identify the sources of naturally occurring outbreaks, as well as potential outbreaks that may arise from errors or malicious intent,” Peters said.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, after listening to part of the debate, expressed irritation that so much attention was being paid to what caused the last pandemic rather than how to prepare for the next one.

“Given the fact that this may have happened, we know what actions we should take to protect ourselves from both,” Romney said. “That’s why there’s so much passion around it that I think it’s more of a political issue than a scientific one, but maybe I’m wrong.”

The United States, he said, should not fund gain-of-function research and should “insist” that anyone who receives federal funding follows International Organization for Standardization standards.

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