March 10, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Lab leak hearing by House Republicans feels frozen in time

The chip on Robert Redfield’s shoulder is evidence of nothing, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.


Share this article

Proponents of a lab origin for SARS-Cov-2 are trying to make it seem as if new evidence for their conjecture is rapidly accumulating. 

But Wednesday’s House Oversight hearing on the origins of the coronavirus seemed as if wiped from a bat’s butt and shoved in a deep freeze. It was the same old players ruminating over the same stale conspiracy theories. 

You wouldn’t know it from the hearing, but a lot has been done in the last three years to ferret out the origins of SARS-Cov-2. 

After an all-out sprint called by President Biden to uncover the origins of the virus, the consensus of the US intelligence community remains that SARS-Cov-2 probably spilled over from wild animals, and that it’s neither genetically engineered nor a bioweapon. 

The consensus of the US intelligence community remains that SARS-Cov-2 probably spilled over from wild animals, and that it’s neither genetically engineered nor a bioweapon. 

Three years on, there’s still no evidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (or any other lab) had SARS-Cov-2 or any plausible progenitor virus before the outbreak. Most importantly, research has shown that the earliest cases of covid were tightly linked to one of the few markets in Wuhan that sold trafficked wildlife. 

The GOP’s star witness was Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control under Donald Trump. 

The Republicans on the committee staked a lot on his credibility because, unlike their other witnesses (a science writer, and a self-described technology futurist), Redfield’s a virologist. 

But Redfield botched basic facts in his testimony. And these weren’t trivial misstatements. He put false claims forward as his main reasons for thinking that SARS-Cov-2 was genetically engineered. 

Redfield’s critics had plenty of time to roast him on Twitter because the GOP majority didn’t see fit to call any real virus experts to testify. 

“Just looked in on the COVID origins to hear Redfield talking complete and utter gibberish,” tweeted Dr. Paul Bieniasz, who studies the evolution of viruses at the Rockefeller University. 

Redfield falsely asserted that the SARS1 and MERS coronaviruses cannot spread person-to-person. He said, as a scientist, that he realized immediately that the Covid-19 virus was genetically engineered because it seemed designed to spread person-to-person, unlike SARS1 and MERS, which don’t spread that way. 

Actually, the SARS1 and MERS coronaviruses do spread between people. SARS1 was so good at spreading person-to-person that it spread to more than two dozen countries and killed nearly 800 people. 

 So much for that argument. 

Redfield insinuated that Chinese researchers must have taken a harmless bat virus and inserted into it a special sequence to make it infectious to people. In saying so, he grossly misstated the function of a viral feature known as the furin cleavage site (FCS). He said he suspected covid was genetically engineered because the virus’s furin cleavage site “totally changes the orientation of the binding domain of Covid […] so it has high affinity for human [ACE2] receptors.” 

None of this is true. 

“The furin site is not involved in spike binding to the ACE2 receptor, and insertion of the furin site does not reorient the receptor binding domain to allow recognition of human ACE2,” Stephen Goldstein, a virologist at the University of Utah, explained to me. 

“It’s a stunning revelation about Redfield’s ignorance about the biological function of the FCS as well as even a basic understanding of the Spike-ACE2 binding and viral entry,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, and a co-author of one of the most influential papers arguing for a natural origin. 

Redfield also spent time whining about how Anthony Fauci excluded him from a working group investigating the origins of SARS-Cov-2. 

“It was told to me that they wanted a single narrative and that I obviously had a different point of view,” Redfield claimed. 

He offered no evidence to support his claim that he’d been excluded because of his opinion that the virus was genetically engineered. However, Redfield’s claim is unlikely true because scientists who were initially sympathetic to a lab origin were invited to participate.

Maybe they thought Redfield was busy running the CDC during a global pandemic. 

Or maybe Redfield was left out because he doesn’t know a furin cleavage site from a fusilli. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.