What Utah Sen. Mitt Romney says about the origins of COVID-19

Yanet Alcaraz holds her son Nathan, 7, as he is tested for COVID-19 at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Aug. 23, 2020. Sen. Mitt Romney called for an end to funding gain of function research during a hearing on COVID-19's origins.

Yanet Alcaraz holds her son Nathan, 7, as he is tested for COVID-19 at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Aug. 23, 2020. Sen. Mitt Romney called for an end to funding gain of function research during a hearing on COVID-19's origins. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney called for an end to funding gain of function research during a contentious Senate hearing Tuesday on the origins of COVID-19, saying no one will ever know with certainty whether the virus responsible for millions of deaths was created in a Chinese lab or emerged from a market selling live animals.

"We know what action we ought to take to protect from either. So why there's so much passion around it makes me think it's more political than scientific but maybe I'm wrong," the Utah Republican said during his questioning of the expert witnesses appearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee .

Romney said he wants China to take responsibility for COVID-19.

"Whether it was from a wet market or the Wuhan lab, China is to blame. Both those things were in China. So if we're looking for someone to blame, we know who it is. It's the Chinese, and they should take responsibility for it and should have opened themselves up to complete disclosure," he said.

What's not as clear, Romney suggested, is what's fueling the continued debate over the origin of the virus.

"There's a lot of energy and passion around, was it from an animal or was it a lab leak. And I must admit, I don't understand why there's so much energy around that. It strikes me that we'll never be 100% sure, I presume, about one or the other." he said, adding, "We'll always be a little uncertain."

The action Romney wants Congress to take is putting an end to funding for what's known as gain of function research, sometimes described as supercharging viruses and other pathogens, making them more dangerous. He said there appears to be "no particular reason for it other than military warfare. We shouldn't do that anyway."

Labs that receive funding for research should also have to follow international standards, Romney said, as well as a "cleanup" of wet markets where live, wild animals such as raccoon dogs and badgers are sold and slaughtered for food or medicine.

The response to Romney's assessment underscored the split evident at the hearing, which included sharp rebukes directed at one of the witnesses. Robert Garry, an author of a controversial paper that concluded early in the pandemic that the virus did not come from a lab.

Garry, a Tulane University School of Medicine professor and associate dean, told Romney that depending on how gain of function research is defined, "you're going to really cripple the biomedical research enterprise" on viruses, cancers and other health issues.

"So let's get that right. I don't think, just blanket, we should stop funding all gain of function research because some of that is important, like for developing animal models of new diseases as they come forth," Garry said, limiting the response to any new threats.

But Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University professor and laboratory director who'd said earlier in the hearing there was "zero evidence" that COVID-19 occurred naturally, said the definition of the term is not at issue. Ebright said the intensity Romney referred to is coming from those involved in gain of function research who don't want federal oversight.

"Only after there is an acknowledgement that there is a very real possibility — not a remote possibility, but a very real possibility — of a lab origin will there be the political will to impose regulation on this scientific community that has successfully resisted and obstructed regulation for two decades," Ebright said.

Another scientist told Romney it comes down to money.

"I think the energy is around the fact that paychecks, salaries, careers, are based on continuing gain of function research by some of the most vocal people in this debate," said Dr. Steven Quay, a former faculty member of the Stanford University School of Medicine. "I think if you follow the money, you'll see the answer."

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