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House committee grills former NIH advisor over his conversations about COVID origins

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A lot of people may have moved on from COVID-19, but a Republican-led House committee remains quite focused on the origins of the pandemic. Yesterday committee members grilled a former senior adviser at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. David Morens was accused of trying to conceal conversations with an outside research group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAD WENSTRUP: We have evidence that Dr. Morens purposefully evaded public transparency required by the Freedom of Information Act.

CHANG: That was Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup. Joining us now to talk about what is going on is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So that was a pretty serious allegation we just heard. What is going on?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. This comes down to a friendship between two people - Dr. David Morens, who was a senior adviser to Anthony Fauci during the pandemic, and a guy named Peter Daszak, who ran a group called EcoHealth Alliance - who runs a group called EcoHealth Alliance. Now, EcoHealth has been at the center of the debate about whether COVID started in nature or in a laboratory. It worked closely in China with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That is the lab that some people believe may have caused the COVID pandemic through a lab accident. And on the political right, the theory goes even further. They claim, without evidence, that EcoHealth and Peter Daszak were directly involved with the creation of COVID and that they did it with NIH money. Here's far-right lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: I personally believe that Peter Daszak at EcoHealth had a lot to do with the fact that COVID was raging.

CHANG: Wait. Wait. Wait. There's no evidence - right? - that NIH funded the creation of COVID.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. In fact, most scientists still think the most likely scenario is it came from nature. It came from bats. But the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic has been investigating EcoHealth and its connection to the NIH. And although it hasn't proven that far-out theory, it has found some stuff that's not great for either side.

CHANG: OK. So explain what this committee has found.

BRUMFIEL: Well, in a report released earlier this month, the committee accused EcoHealth of violating the terms of its grant with NIH. The claim was that they did things like upload their reports late and not communicate adequately with the agency. And the federal government's actually suspended funding to EcoHealth as a result, though the group plans to appeal. But in yesterday's hearing, it was over communication that was the problem, specifically between Daszak and Morens. In emails released by the committee, the two were making lewd comments. And it went even further. At one point, Morens joked about getting a bribe from EcoHealth. Now, he didn't take any money. He and Daszak are longtime friends. He says that during the pandemic, Peter Daszak was getting death threats. Morens says he was just kidding around to lift the mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID MORENS: I was trying to help a friend by cheering him up with black humor and things like that.

BRUMFIEL: But the emails also show that this group of friends appeared to be trying to hide their communications with each other, and that was a little harder to explain.

CHANG: And why was trying to hide their emails a problem here?

BRUMFIEL: Because of the Freedom of Information Act. FOIA requires all communication with federal employees be saved so that citizens can ask for them later. And that applies to professional communications of people like Dr. Morens. Now, in his testimony, he claimed that this was all a big mix-up because he had his personal email and his NIH email on the same phone. But the committee found emails where Morens openly discussed how to evade FOIA. He said things like, quote, "I learned from our FOIA lady here how to make emails disappear after I'm FOIA'd."

CHANG: Oops.

BRUMFIEL: And Democrats were pretty angry. Here's Michigan's Debbie Dingell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEBBIE DINGELL: Dr. Morens, do you have any regret for the way in which you conducted yourself?

MORENS: Yes, I do.

BRUMFIEL: And Morens apologized for his behavior at multiple points in the hearing.

CHANG: OK. Geoff, I mean, it seems like at the end of the day, this is, OK, some pretty bad behavior around one group, one senior official. But what broader implications do you see?

BRUMFIEL: Well, people who believe COVID came from a lab, even if they don't think it was EcoHealth's fault, say this kind of behavior makes it harder to figure out what happened in Wuhan. And on the other side, scientists who study pandemics worry these hearings will have a chilling effect on how to study viruses that spillover from nature. So both sides are worried.

CHANG: That is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you so much, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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