WASHINGTON — The Biden administration insisted Monday there remains no “consensus” about whether COVID-19 leaked from a Chinese lab, despite a new Energy Department assessment that it likely did — while defending gain-of-function research, which critics say may have caused the pandemic.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby pointedly refused to confirm reports that the Energy Department had updated its stance to say COVID-19 likely came from a lab leak.
“I’m not at liberty to confirm the reporting,” Jean-Pierre told NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell, who asked if there had been new evidence found by the Energy Department’s National Laboratories.
“What I can tell you is, again, there’s been no consensus on this — where COVID originated — so I’ll just leave it there and not try to get ahead of the current process,” Jean-Pierre said.
RealClearPolitics reporter Philip Wegmann asked Kirby for the current Biden administration stance on “gain-of-function” research, which makes viruses more dangerous and transmissible for research purposes — as was done with US funding at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China before the devastating pandemic began nearby.
“Does the president believe that this type of gain-of-function research is prudent?” Wegmann asked.
“He believes that it’s important to help prevent future pandemics, which means he understands there has to be legitimate scientific research into the sources or potential sources of pandemics so that we understand it so that we can prevent them,” Kirby said.
“But he also believes and this is why he wants a whole of government effort here to understand it, that that research has to be done, must be done in a safe and secure manner and as transparent as possible to the rest of the world so that people know what’s going on.”
Kirby concluded by telling Wegmann: “I think that’s a fancy way of saying yes.”
Later in the briefing, Jean-Pierre denounced criticism of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who until recently served as President Biden’s chief medical adviser and as the federal government’s longtime top infectious disease expert.
Fox News’ Jacqui Heinrich asked Jean-Pierre if it was wrong for Fauci to dismiss the lab-leak theory early in the pandemic — prompting a defense of the doctor, who is widely respected by Democrats and generally disliked by Republicans.
“The political attacks on someone like Dr. Fauci who — and public officials more broadly — but Dr. Fauci, who has spent his career saving lives…. these attacks have been counterproductive, they have not been helpful,” Jean-Pierre said.
The Energy Department updated its stance on the pandemic’s origin recently, according to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times — joining the FBI in assessing that a lab leak of the virus was more likely than it naturally spreading from animals to humans.
US spy agencies assessed in August 2021 that it was “plausible” that the virus came either from a lab release in Wuhan or from a natural origin.
Documents published in late 2021 by The Intercept revealed that Manhattan-based EcoHealth Alliance used US grants to fund Wuhan lab experiments that modified three bat coronaviruses distinct from COVID-19. The research discovered those viruses became much more infectious among “humanized” mice when human-type receptors were added to them.
Fauci’s former agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, indirectly funded “gain-of-function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that modified bat coronaviruses by attaching human-type receptors before the deadly pandemic began in the central Chinese city.
Last year, the then-Fauci-led agency announced $5 million in new grants for the same Wuhan-linked group, the EcoHealth Alliance.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) expressed alarm, saying at the time: “This is like a bad sequel with the same plot and characters, but a bigger budget.”
President Biden, whose family has extensive business relations in China, rarely mentions any interest in determining the origins of the pandemic, which has killed more than 1 million Americans and nearly 7 million people globally — in a contrast with his predecessor and 2024 challenger Donald Trump, who has floated forcing China to pay $50 trillion in pandemic “reparations.”
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