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EXCLUSIVE: Lawmakers, citing Sinclair report, seek classified briefing on COVID-19 study

FILE - Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) questions Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) during a House Energy and Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on April 2, 2019 in Washington, DC.{ } (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
FILE - Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) questions Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) during a House Energy and Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on April 2, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
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WASHINTON (SBG) — A leading House lawmaker, citing exclusive reporting by Sinclair, is demanding more information about a classified investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a May 11 letter to Dr. Kimberly Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, R-Wash., ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, requested a classified briefing on the details of a secret report produced by LLNL scientists a year ago which found the virus could have originated in a Chinese laboratory.

Sinclair first disclosed the existence of the LLNL study, dated May 27, 2020 and classified at the “Top Secret” level, in a story published May 3 of this year. The LLNL report was produced by Z Division, the intelligence unit for the lab, where top scientists have long studied the biological and chemical weapons programs maintained by foreign countries, including China, and have played a leading role in the federal response to COVID-19. Sinclair did not review the LLNL report but confirmed its contents through interviews with multiple sources who read it or were briefed on its contents.

Joined by two co-signatories – Reps. H. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., ranking member on the panel’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, and Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., the top Republican on the Health subcommittee – McMorris-Rodgers said such a briefing “will assist us in our inquiry into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.” That is the formal scientific name for the COVID-19 pandemic that emanated from the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

“As leaders on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, the congressional committee with jurisdiction over public health, we strongly support a comprehensive investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the possibility of an accidental laboratory leak,” said the letter, first obtained by Sinclair.

Additionally, McMorris-Rodgers and her colleagues requested the presence at such a briefing of Dr. David Rakestraw, identified in Sinclair’s reporting as a senior science adviser who formerly ran LLNL’s biodefense programs and has been coordinating the lab’s technical response to COVID-19.

The lawmakers requested a reply from LLNL by May 25.

“What we’d like to learn is the truth,” said Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, ranking Republican on the panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. “I don't have any hard and set opinion yet,” on what caused COVID-19. “But I'm afraid that if we don't get all the information possible, we cannot trust the Chinese government to tell us the truth.

Asked about the lawmakers’ letter, Lynda Seaver, a spokesman for the Livermore lab – who confirmed the existence of the Z Division report for the Sinclair story on May 3 – told Sinclair in an email Tuesday the lab has no comment.

The theory that COVID-19 might have “leaked,” or “escaped,” from a Chinese laboratory that was experimenting with previous coronaviruses has attracted many adherents, in and out of the U.S. government. According to declassified intelligence released by the State Department in January, the Wuhan Institute of Virology was performing research on RaTG13, the bat coronavirus with the closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2 %).

The Wuhan lab has also published findings from “gain-of-function” research, which is aimed at increasing the transmissibility of viruses among humans. State Department officials who visited the lab in 2018 reportedly cabled back to Washington that they had observed WIV personnel practicing lax safety protocols. Among those who have espoused the lab-leak theory is Dr. Robert Redfield, the virologist and former CDC director.

Many others have settled on the “zoonotic” theory, espoused by China and the World Health Organization. This theory holds that an animal, most likely a bat, infected the first human with COVID-19, or infected an intermediate host, such as another animal, that subsequently infected the first human. This theory has focused on the “wet” markets of Wuhan, the crowded bazaar of fish, meats, and frozen foods where roughly one-third of the first 174 known cases of COVID-19 had links.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a March 26 video-briefing with reporters that “most public health individuals go by” the zoonotic-origin theory.

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, testified last month that the U.S. intelligence community is actively investigating both theories. “We just don't know exactly where, when, and how the coronavirus was transmitted initially,” Haines told the House intelligence committee on April 15.

“We have two plausible theories that we are working onthat components within the intelligence community have essentially coalesced around. One of them is that it was a laboratory accident, and the other is that it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals.”

Sinclair’s Julian Baron contributed research to this story.

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