In the two years since COVID-19 began ravaging the United States, virtually every aspect of the pandemic has been politicized, often to the detriment of efforts to bring the disease under control and to treat its victims. Now, though, members of Congress are taking the first steps toward a bipartisan effort to understand the pandemic’s origins and to assess the federal government’s response.
The two most senior members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions have begun circulating a proposal to create a 12-member commission of private citizens with broad authority to investigate the origins of the disease – and how the Trump and Biden administrations responded to it. The initiative appears to have broad support among members of both parties.
The two lawmakers, Health Committee Chair Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, and the committee’s senior Republican, Richard Burr of North Carolina, have modeled the effort on the commission that was created to investigate the origins of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. That body won bipartisan praise for its exhaustive analysis of the events leading up to the attacks.
The proposal is part of a larger piece of legislation called the “Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats, and Pandemics Act,” or the “PREVENT Pandemics Act,” for short. In addition to creating the task force, the bill would expand the capacity of public health agencies to respond to disease outbreaks, boost research and development, and strengthen the supply chain for medical products.
National task force
The panel proposed in the bill would be known as the “National Task Force on the Response of the United States to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” and would have the authority to issue subpoenas to compel testimony and the disclosure of records as necessary for the investigation.
Kristin Urquiza, one of the co-founders of an advocacy group for families affected by the pandemic known as Marked by COVID, told VOA she was encouraged by Murray and Burr’s proposal, calling it the best version of a framework for an investigative panel she has seen so far.
“Marked by COVID has been calling for a commission or a task force for well over a year,” Urquiza said. “It's a top priority for our families to really ensure that we have an accurate record of what happened and why. Not only so we can have answers as to why our loved ones were lost, but so we can pass on learnings to ourselves and future generations for any mistakes that were made, and so that we can do better next time that there's a public health crisis.”
So far, discussion of the pandemic’s origins and the federal response have tended to be highly politicized. In the earliest days of the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump was eager to downplay the severity of the crisis, a stance many of his political supporters adopted.
This helped create a sharp divide in how Republicans and Democrats across the country viewed the federal response to the pandemic.
As COVID-19 deaths in America grew from the thousands to the tens of thousands, Trump made a very public effort to blame China, the country where the disease was first identified, for the global health crisis. Arguments over the degree of China’s responsibility for the spread of the virus have also taken on a sharply partisan tone.
Efforts to blame China
Many Republicans in Congress have thrown their support behind the theory that the virus that causes COVID-19 escaped from a laboratory in China, where the coronavirus was being studied. This theory is supported by the fact that there is a major infectious disease research facility located near the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected.
Democrats, on the whole, have been more inclined to back the view put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO), which suggested that the virus migrated into the human population through close contact with wild animals – probably bats – that were already infected with a version of it.
The WHO, however, has sent mixed signals about the origins of the virus. A report issued by the body last year argued that it was extremely unlikely that the virus reached the human population through a laboratory leak. However, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director, said that China refused to share important data from early cases of COVID-19, hampering the ability of the WHO’s investigators to complete a thorough analysis.
In a series of congressional hearings, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to President Biden, has been aggressively questioned by Republican members of Congress who have accused him of withholding information about research at the Wuhan institute of Virology that was partially funded by the U.S. government.
For his part, Fauci has publicly supported calls for an investigation into the origin of the virus.
Hope for a balanced inquiry
In the earlier stages of the pandemic, Republicans were suspicious of any commission tasked with investigating the pandemic, out of concern that its findings would be used as a cudgel against the Trump administration.
Urquiza, of Marked by COVID, said that the passage of time has made it less likely that the findings of a committee will be seen as politicized, because both parties can be seen as having some successes and some failures in the COVID-19 response.
“Our worry from day one was that a commission would turn into a witch hunt for either China or President Trump,” she said. “Part of what we've seen now, over the course of the last year, is that the Biden administration now has a pandemic track record, and that has opened up the field to allow for both praise and criticism of what has happened.”