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Senate unanimously passes COVID lab leak declassification bill

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asks questions during a Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss election security and the 2020 election process on Dec. 16, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Greg Nash/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)
March 02, 2023

The Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to force the declassification of any links between the COVID-19 pandemic and a Chinese virology lab, following reports that two U.S. agencies view a laboratory leak as the most likely source of the virus.

Introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), the bill would mandate the disclosure of any U.S. intelligence linking a sensitive laboratory near where the virus was first reported, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to the origin of the virus, according to the bill’s text.

It comes as two agencies acknowledge a lab leak, rather than animal-to-human transmission, as the virus’ most likely source, sparking renewed questioning of its origins three years after it became a pandemic that killed more than 1 million Americans.

READ MORE: China threatens Elon Musk over COVID lab leak tweet

Over the weekend, news emerged that the Energy Department had come to a “low confidence” conclusion that the virus most likely leaked from a Chinese lab. Within days, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau has viewed a Wuhan lab leak as the most likely origin “for quite some time now.”

The new Senate bill would require Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to declassify any knowledge of work done at the Wuhan lab associated with the Chinese military, as well as all its coronavirus research and related activities prior to the pandemic. 

It also would require detailed information on researchers at the Wuhan lab “who fell ill in autumn 2019,” including their name and whether they were exposed to coronavirus research. There were reports of COVID-like illnesses among several Wuhan researchers in the months prior to the pandemic, according to a State Department fact sheet.

The bill, known as the COVID-19 Origins Act of 2023, would also need to pass the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a slight majority, before President Joe Biden could sign it into law.

The chair of the House Democratic Caucus, California Rep. Pete Aguilar, signaled on Wednesday that he did not favor forcing declassification, telling reporters: “We believe in letting committees of jurisdiction guide the discussions ahead and working with the administration,” Bloomberg Law reported.

The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent, meaning there were no objections and no roll call vote.

A similar bill with the same name unanimously passed the Senate in 2021. Its companion bill in the House of Representatives died in a subcommittee after being introduced by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who now leads the House select committee on China.

Some studies continue to indicate that the virus jumped from animals to humans at a Wuhan seafood market, as reported by CNN. U.S. intelligence agencies are split on the issue, but agree that the virus was not deliberately unleashed by China, according to a 2021 DNI report.