Lawrence Tabak, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health, told Congress on Wednesday he has “no idea” if a lab leak caused the coronavirus pandemic and said he thinks a transfer from the animal kingdom is the likeliest theory.
Rep. Andrew Clyde, Georgia Republican, pressed Dr. Tabak on the subject as momentum grows on Capitol Hill behind the belief the virus leaked from a major lab in Wuhan, China, in the fall of 2019.
Dr. Tabak told the congressman that U.S. subgrant funding flowed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology but said the research did not make pathogens more dangerous. He was less sure about the source of the pandemic-causing virus.
“I have no idea,” Dr. Tabak testified to a health subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. “There are two prevalent theories, a lab accident — or a lab leak — versus a zoonotic transfer from animals to humans. In my mind, the available evidence favors the latter but, of course, our minds are open to the former possibility.”
Dr. Tabak testified at a hearing on President Biden’s request for billions in new funding for top health agencies in fiscal 2024. Much of the hearing pivoted on lessons from the pandemic and ways to prevent another crisis.
Mr. Biden is requesting $11.6 billion in fiscal 2024 for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or $2.4 billion above enacted levels for the current year.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told Congress she wants to build “the public health agency of the future” after complaints its communication and data-sharing were outdated and sluggish during the pandemic.
She said the CDC is “moving our science faster so that people can see our science in real-time,” citing strides in sharing data on mpox — formerly known as monkeypox — during an outbreak last year.
Dr. Walensky said the CDC is overhauling thousands of pages on its website so it is more useful to the public and working on its communication skills after complaints about outdated figures on cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 and fluctuating guidance on masks.
“We are now needing to communicate to the American people, not just to our public health partners, not just to our academic partners,” Dr. Walensky said.
Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said her agency wants $995 million for the Strategic National Stockpile next year, or $30 million more than enacted fiscal 2023 levels. She said the U.S. cannot suffer a repeat of the early pandemic situation in which the U.S. faced shortages of medical supplies.
“They weren’t in the stockpiles in the ways that people expected,” Ms. O’Connell said.
Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, championed the agencies and said spending limits would make the country vulnerable to another health crisis.
Yet Republicans who control the committee, and ultimately the purse strings in the House, faulted parts of the budget plan.
Rep. Robert Aderholt, Alabama Republican, took exception to parts of the CDC request that would nearly triple funding for firearm research and dole out $250 million for new youth violence prevention programs, plus $135 million for climate-related work. He said those items stray too far from the CDC’s core mission.
Rep. Julia Letlow, Louisiana Republican whose husband died from COVID-19, pressed the NIH director to use its funding to probe the origins of the coronavirus.
Dr. Tabak said he supports research into whether it was a lab accident or slipped into humans from nature but the answer is unclear “in part because of, frankly, the government of China not cooperating with us.”
“They hold a key to unraveling this mystery,” Dr. Tabak testified.
Other lawmakers focused on the overall amount of spending demanded by Mr. Biden.
“I wish I lived in the fairytale land of President Biden’s budget,” Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican, said. “I wish I did. I wish I could pretend we don’t have a $31 trillion deficit.”
“We don’t have the money,” he said.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.