Column: Democrats show that they're no better than Trump in allowing politics to interfere with science

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Indio) continues his irresponsible attack on a virus-hunting organization during a committee hearing Thursday. (House of Representatives)

Anyone who cares about the importance of science in the making of government policy had to be deeply dispirited by the hearing into the origins of COVID-19 staged by a Republican-led House subcommittee on May 1.

The sole witness at the hearing, and its target, was Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, a nongovernmental organization tasked with overseeing international virus research funded by federal agencies.

It wasn't just that the GOP majority used the occasion to promote the ignorant, imbecilic and 100% evidence-free notion that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the COVID pandemic, originated in a Chinese laboratory, through work funded by the U.S. government, and overseen by EcoHealth.

Science is a myth-buster...Because of this, science has become a nuisance, even an enemy to some industries and many of the most powerful actors in the new attention economy.

Science blogger Philipp Markolin

It was that the Democratic minority showed itself to be complicit with the GOP attack on EcoHealth.

As I wrote at the time, the Democrats threw Daszak and by extension science itself under the bus: "Perhaps they hoped that by allowing Daszak to be drawn and quartered, they might persuade the Republicans to climb down from their evidence-free claims about government complicity in the pandemic’s origins."

The Democrats' craven and shameful performance hinted that EcoHealth's government funding, which had been blocked by the Trump administration and restored, though delayed, under Biden, was pretty much doomed.

On Wednesday, the bell tolled. EcoHealth received a notice from the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of the NIH, that it was immediately suspending all funding to the organization and moving to "debar" it from federal funding going forward.

It's impossible to overstate what a serious blow this is for EcoHealth and research into the origins of pathogens that could cause illness and death on a global scale — the central purpose of EcoHealth's work.

The organization, which has operated with a budget of about $16 million, cannot receive a contract from any federal agency or even serve as a subcontractor of another awardee. All organizations with federal contracts that have affiliated with EcoHealth will be "carefully examined."

EcoHealth says it will appeal the proposed debarment, as is its right. But that process could take years. In the meantime, the organization will be effectively out of money, and very likely out of business. The HHS action effectively turns one of the leading organizations in the quest to protect humankind from the next pandemic into a pariah, completely unjustifiably.

Read more: Column: How the GOP — with Democratic Party connivance — has undermined a crucial effort to avert the next pandemic

The debarment threat "will mean the demise of EcoHealth, one of the most scientifically productive and internationally respected groups conducting field surveillance for potential pandemic viruses," says Gerald T. Keusch, a former associate director of international research at the NIH. "And that means our national security will be compromised."

Let's be clear about what has happened here. EcoHealth has been made a scapegoat for the pandemic for partisan reasons. The process started with President Trump. At a news conference on April 17, 2020, a reporter from a right-wing organization mentioned that the NIH had given a $3.7-million grant to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Actually, the WIV grant, which was channeled from a larger EcoHealth grant, was only $600,000.)

Trump, sensing an opportunity to show a strong hand against China and advance his effort to blame the Chinese for the pandemic, responded: “We will end that grant very quickly.” The NIH terminated the grant one week later, prompting a backlash from the scientific community, including an open letter signed by 77 Nobel laureates who saw the action as a flagrantly partisan interference in government funding of scientific research.

The HHS inspector general found the termination to be “improper.” The NIH reinstated the grant, but immediately suspended it until EcoHealth met several conditions that were manifestly beyond its capability, as they involved its demanding information from the Chinese government that it had no right to receive. The grant was reinstated last year under Biden, but NIH bureaucrats, perhaps worried about their careers in a new Trump administration, continued to put administrative obstacles in the way of EcoHealth's work.

The attacks on Daszak and his organization are simply instruments of the GOP project to pin blame for the pandemic on Anthony Fauci, one of the world's most respected public health figures.

The context is a battle for the minds of uninformed and misinformed Americans over the origin of COVID-19. The hypothesis favored by most qualified virologists and epidemiologists is that the virus reached humans the way most viruses do — as spillovers from wildlife. The alternative hypothesis, for which absolutely not a speck of evidence has ever been presented, is that the virus emerged from a laboratory—specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, whether deliberately or through sloppy lab practices.

The latter hypothesis was initially promoted by an anti-China cabal in the Trump-era State Department. Although they never produced any grounds for the conspiracy theory, it remains favored by anti-vaccine agitators and in the Republican anti-science camp. It has a certain appeal for uninformed people susceptible to sinister explanations of complicated, troubling events; but it's not science.

Read more: Column: Two Rutgers professors are accused of poisoning the debate over COVID's origins. Here's why

Daszak calls the government actions "fundamentally unfair" and "based on a set of false assumptions about COVID-19 origins and on persistent mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of our research...Our work has been at the forefront of understanding pandemic risk for over two decades, and it’s a very cruel irony that because we knew that China was a potential hotspot for the next coronavirus pandemic, we’re now being targeted in a political backlash caused by exactly the type of pandemic we were concerned about preventing.”

An outgrowth of the lab-leak fantasy is the asinine claim that as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci funded research in China that created the pandemic virus and let it loose on the world, and then concealed his complicity. This is a favorite meme among lab-leak fanatics. Among the research bodies that received NIAID funding to conduct field work in China was EcoHealth. (Fauci retired last year as director of NIAID, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.)

On May 1, the GOP-led Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic brought things to a head with its grilling of Daszak. It was a circus featuring posturing politicians intent on smearing Daszak and EcoHealth on the pretext of getting to the bottom of the pandemic’s cause. The committee Democrats participated fully, hammering Daszak as a "poor steward of the taxpayers’ dollars," based on transparent trivialities.

During a follow-up subcommittee hearing Thursday, ranking member Raul Ruiz (D-Indio) alluded to the dishonestly of the GOP attack on Fauci. But, perhaps inadvertently, he also exposed the dishonesty of his caucus' attack on Daszak.

The committee Republicans, Ruiz said, "still have not succeeded in substantiating their allegations that NIH and NIAID through a grant to EcoHealth Alliance created SARS-CoV-2 and conspired to cover it up. ... No evidence demonstrates that work performed under the EcoHealth grants, including at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, led to the creation of SARS-CoV-2."

Does Ruiz ever listen to the words coming out of his mouth? The very goal of the GOP's dragging Daszak and EcoHealth into this controversy was to fabricate a link in the chain between Fauci and COVID-19; by rejecting the GOP position, Ruiz demolished the case against EcoHealth.

Yet Ruiz didn't walk the last mile. "EcoHealth has defied its obligations to be a transparent steward of taxpayer dollars," he said, repeated the lame case against the organization that he first aired, in connivance with the Republicans, during the public interrogation of Daszak on May 1.

Legitimate scientists, such as virology experts uninfected by the conspiratorial fantasy that the virus originated in the lab, are aghast at the suspension of EcoHealth's funding and the organization's likely debarment, as well as the Democrats' supine behavior.

Read more: Column: How Trump's anti-science meddling erased 3 years of crucial COVID research

The Democrats, as Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at Kings College London, wrote on X, "have made some shoddy back room deal to allow them to look tough to the conspiracy theorists." Neil is right. There is no rational explanation for the Democrats' behavior than some sort of deal with the Republican majority to give them cover to challenge the lab leak theory.

Put it all together, and it looks like HHS started with a politically driven impulse to cut off EcoHealth's funding, followed by an effort to assemble every justification for doing so, no matter how trivial. The absurdity of its action drips from the closing words of the notice issued by H. Katrina Brisbon, an HHS "suspension and debarment official." She wrote that "the immediate suspension of EHA is necessary to protect the public interest and due to a cause of so serious or compelling a nature that it affects EHA's present responsibility."

The notice was accompanied by an 11-page bill of particulars, but they all boil down to two key purported offenses — that EcoHealth had missed a 2019 deadline for an annual report of its activities to NIH, and that work EcoHealth had funded in China had produced a recombinant version of a virus that grew fast enough to trigger a safety halt in the work.

The first was tantamount to a traffic violation. EcoHealth maintained that it hadn't been able to file the report on time because it had been locked out of NIH's onlline reporting portal, which NIH denies. On the second, there were legitimate disagreements over whether the subject virus' growth actually did trigger the halt requirement; in any case, the virus wasn't a threat to human health. The work at issue took place in 2018.

HHS cited several other supposed offenses, including EcoHealth's failure to submit lab notebooks from the Wuhan institute that NIH has requested in November 2021. But since NIH had ordered EcoHealth to stop funding the institute as of April 2020, those notebooks were plainly out of its reach.

Daszak says EcoHealth will respond to the HHS and the subcommittee "with documentary evidence...refuting every single allegation that’s been levied against us."

The roots of anti-science slant of Trump and others on the far right isn't hard to discern. It's aimed at protecting the economic establishment from new ideas and realities such as global warming, while providing financial and personal opportunities for grifters and charlatans.

Read more: Column: New evidence undermines the COVID lab-leak theory — but the press keeps pushing it

Swiss scientist and science blogger Philipp Markolin has put his finger on this phenomenon.

"Science is a myth-buster," he writes. "Its debunking activity reduces the value of information products that too many media manipulators rely on for their business. Because of this, science has become a nuisance, even an enemy to some industries and many of the most powerful actors in the new attention economy."

Why did the Democrats agree to participate in this charade? In joining the Daszak smear, they have shredded their credibility as of scientific truth, at the very moment when science is most in need of their protection.

The time has come to ask this question of Ruiz, his Democratic colleagues on the coronavirus subcommittee — Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Kwesi Mfume of Maryland, Deborah Ross of North Carolina, Robert Garcia of Long Beach, Ami Bera of Sacramento and Jill Tokuda of Hawaii — along with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra: How can you live with yourselves?

Get the latest from Michael Hiltzik
Commentary on economics and more from a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Sign me up.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.