Deepening the divide between Democrats and Republicans on federal responses to COVID-19, a U.S. House of Representatives committee today released two starkly different reports assessing the performance of U.S. intelligence agencies at the start of the pandemic. Neither offers much new information; one focuses on how agencies tracked the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, and the other focuses on the contentious debate surrounding the origin of the pandemic coronavirus.
The report released by the Democratic majority is a declassified version of a review, completed in August, that the House Standing Select Committee on Intelligence conducted into how various branches of the so-called intelligence community ( IC) first reacted to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. Chairman Adam Schiff (D–CA), in a summary of the report, praises a little-known Department of Defense team, the National Center for Medical Intelligence, for its “admirable work” that is ringing early alarm bells .
But Schiff says IC “as a whole hasn’t pivoted fast enough to train its unique assets for this deadly set of problems.” The report also concludes that former President Donald Trump failed to respond properly in January and February 2020 to the increasingly loud warnings – despite the President’s claims that IC “talked about the virus”. [sic] in a very non-threatening or factual way.
The report is “important for diagnosing how the United States can do better next time around,” says Thomas Bollyky, a lawyer who directs the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Amid a flood of recent governmental and non-governmental after-action reports on COVID, this one does something different from the others: it provides a focused description and assessment of the role of the intelligence community specifically in the identification and response to this biological threat and future biological threats.”
The Democrats dodged the subject of the Republicans’ report: the origin of the pandemic. The report summarizes a classified document that minority members of the House hope the next Congress will make public. (Republicans will take control of the House next month, but Democrats will retain a majority in the Senate.) The report promotes the idea that the pandemic originated in a Wuhan lab that specializes in studying bat coronaviruses. . The report further suggests that SARS-CoV-2 did not arise naturally, but rather was bioengineered. “The Committee has reason to believe that the IC has downplayed the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 is linked to China’s biological weapons program based in part on input from outside experts,” say its members. authors.
This, however, contradicts the unclassified version of an assessment of origin scenarios conducted by IC at the request of President Joe Biden. Published in August 2021, it concluded that “the virus was not developed as a biological weapon”.
Gigi Kwik Gronvall, biosecurity researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says the minority report is “very politically motivated” and that none of its details contradict the growing evidence that the virus first emerged on a Wuhan market that likely sold infected animals. “The focus on bioweapons is unbalanced,” says Gronvall.
The majority and minority reports have some things in common: both largely cover familiar territory and rely heavily on news reports, and both complain that IC leaders have failed to respond to some of their requests.
But their main conclusions differ considerably. Here are some highlights of each:
The majority report faults IC for not taking virus threats seriously enough, noting that a former National Security Council official told the committee that “the steady pace of virus threats” was not “characterized as a problem of tough national security for tough guys”. Public health and IC entities are “not often natural collaborators,” the report says. And he points to a “deeply flawed political process” in how IC communicated with the White House in the early days of the pandemic.
The minority report criticizes the original IC assessment for not giving enough attention to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its biological weapons program. It highlights a book published by the PLA Academy of Military Medical Sciences, The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Weapons, pointing out that IC’s assessment made no reference to it. The report also cites an article published in October by ProPublica and vanity lounge which promotes the laboratory leak theory. This article was linked to the release of another minority report from a bipartisan Senate health committee investigating the origin of the pandemic. This story has been heavily criticized for containing factual errors and disputed translations of Chinese documents that allegedly suggest a biosafety incident occurred at the Wuhan lab in November 2019. ProPublicaThe editor of published a defense of the story after a month, but critics argue it had serious flaws.
Yesterday, Reps. James Comer (R-KY) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) said they planned to step up the House Oversight Committee’s ongoing efforts to probe the origin of the pandemic. They claimed that “growing evidence shows that COVID-19 likely originated from the Wuhan lab and the Chinese Communist Party covered it up.” They added that they had identified 40 scientists and public health officials whom the panel intended to interview next year when the House changed party control.