Covid-19 Origin Act of 2023

Floor Speech

Date: March 10, 2023
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. HIMES. Madam Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Madam Speaker, I rise in support of S. 619, the COVID-19 Origins Act of 2023. Along with my colleague, the gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Turner), I plan to support this legislation, and I urge the House to pass it. Let me stop now to compliment Chairman Turner on the efforts he has made narrowly to bring this bill to the floor, but more generally, to make sure that the Intelligence Committee operates in the thoughtful, constructive, and bipartisan manner which it must operate in if we are to protect this Nation's national security.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of more than 1.1 million Americans, and millions more have died worldwide. The American people want to know as much as we can determine about where this pandemic started and critically how we can be ready for the next deadly disease, which will come.

Determining the precise origins of a pandemic disease with high confidence is challenging under the best of circumstances. In this case, our already difficult task is that much harder because COVID originated in China.

At every juncture, the PRC Government has obfuscated and obstructed legitimate inquiries and investigations into the origins of the disease. China's approach has been deeply irresponsible and dangerous to global public health.

It is against that backdrop that in 2021 President Biden ordered a 90-day sprint by the intelligence community to analyze the origins of the virus. In August of 2021, the IC completed its initial work, and a few months later, a declassified version of its findings was made public.

In short, the intelligence community agencies could not come to an agreement on whether the virus originated from a lab accident or from natural exposure. Some individual agencies did reach a judgment--a narrow judgment--about which path was more likely, but they could not do so with high confidence simply because we don't have enough reliable information to draw those conclusions. There is a version of the IC's classified assessment that is available to all Members through the House Security Office.

Around 18 months after the completion of the IC assessment, not much has changed. The intelligence community remains focused on this question, and I hope that we will have a breakthrough that will allow us to answer these questions once and for all, but today we are not there yet.

I believe that the IC should make as much public as they can, consistent with the overriding need to protect sources and methods. Transparency is a critical element of our democracy. The factual grounding of the IC's analysis can be an antidote to the speculation, the rumor, and the theories that grow in the absence of good information.

It is important to note that the bill provides the authority to make redactions to protect sources and methods for a good reason, and neither the chairman nor I would be supporting the bill if that were not true. I trust the intelligence community and the administration will lean forward in making public as much new information as possible without endangering our ability to collect and analyze on these issues going forward.

Now, I would mention two important things before I recognize other speakers on my side:

First, the pandemic, which is really what is at stake here. Whether COVID-19 originated from a lab leak or natural transmission at a wet market, the next pandemic disease could originate from either source, and it could come from anywhere.

In 2022, the Intelligence Committee released a declassified report looking at how the intelligence community responded to COVID-19 and made recommendations for how we can be better prepared for the next pandemic disease, wherever it may come from.

Overall, the report recommended that the intelligence community increase resources for global health security and medical intelligence, and that it needs to move away from a culture that views health security as a lesser priority than so-called traditional hard national security threats; evidence the fact that it was this that killed over a million Americans.

Furthermore, we need to promote complementary efforts between the public health and intelligence communities. Public health professionals and their counterparts in the IC must work hand-in-hand if we want to maximize the odds of identifying a novel disease at the earliest possible stage and if we want to give ourselves the best chance of determining the novel disease's origins.

Let me turn briefly to another important thing that is really at stake here. Madam Speaker, democracy is rooted in the idea that the people govern, that it is their right to determine their own political destiny. With that right comes an obligation that we don't talk about or think about nearly enough, and that obligation is to be thoughtful, informed critical thinkers about the issues of the day.

That is not who we are today. Today, we have elevated--because of our political polarization, we have elevated confirmation bias to a secular religion. Even in this conversation about the origins of the coronavirus, what you believe is indicative of where you stand on the political spectrum.

For reasons I don't understand, some of our colleagues and many Americans are running around with a theory that somehow buttresses their political legitimacy. Maybe you do that with UFOs, maybe you want to believe that there are aliens at Roswell or whatever you want to believe; that is pretty harmless. But when we are talking about a pandemic or something as serious as a disease that could kill a million Americans, that is not okay, and we have to remember our obligation to be thoughtful critical thinkers. We cannot let our political hopes override the obligations we have to be thinkers.

Madam Speaker, I tell my colleagues, the chairman and I have seen all of the classified information on this, and we don't know--we don't know the origins of the COVID pandemic. Whatever is ultimately declassified, I would hope that my colleagues and the American people would approach that information with the intellectual humility that we need to approach something as serious as a pandemic and how we behave as citizens in democracy.

We don't know.

We need to think about whether we want confirmation bias. Our tendency to select just those facts which support our preexisting positions interfere with our duty as critical thinkers in a democracy.

At the end of the day, the American people will get the system of government that they deserve, and if we don't get back to being humble about what we know to being critical thinkers, our democracy will be at risk.

I close with a quote from a great Connecticut writer and humorist, Mark Twain. He said: ``It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It is what you know for sure that just ain't so.''

I am going to join my chairman in supporting this bill, and I hope it passes in overwhelming bipartisan fashion. I hope we take that information and use it for constructive purposes in the service of saving lives and buttressing our democracy.


Mr. HIMES. Madam Speaker, I yield 5 minutes to the gentleman from California (Mr. Bera), a member of the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic.


Mr. HIMES. Madam Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Madam Speaker, we were doing pretty well there, but behind the discussion of ducks were some pretty aggressive accusations of lying of American Government officials, dishonesty, attributions of motives, which is really what I am and I think what we are all trying to avoid here.

I will say it again. As profoundly frustrating as it is, we just don't know. We are entitled to have theories. We are citizens, after all. We shouldn't be so certain in those theories that we are willing to impugn the character and motives of other Americans, especially if those Americans are in positions of responsibility that need to be trusted in the next pandemic. So I will leave that there.

I do want to characterize and substantiate my rather frustrating observation that we just don't know--with what the intelligence community believes is the latest assessment on the origins--again, I understand this is frustrating, but facts are important.

Here it is, and this is a publicly available document: Four intelligence community elements and the National Intelligence Council assess, with low confidence, that the virus was likely caused by natural exposure to animals infected with it.

One IC element assesses, with moderate confidence, that the first human infection most likely was the result of a laboratory-associated incident.

Then analysts at three IC elements remain unable to coalesce around either explanation.

That is a profoundly frustrating picture of organizations whose aggregate budget is tens of billions of dollars, who draw on all kinds of expertise, and yes, who are fallible, like any human institutions are. That is where they are and, sadly, that aggregates to, we just don't know.

We are entitled to speculate. We are entitled to have theories. I would just urge caution about impugning people's motives, impugning their character based on those theories which are necessarily rooted in uncertainty.

Mr. HIMES. Madam Speaker, I yield myself the balance of my time.

I will reiterate my support for this bill and my gratitude to the chairman and the Republican majority for moving it quickly.

This bill, fundamentally, is about something we haven't talked a lot about today, which is transparency. Transparency is a cornerstone of our democracy because without transparency, the American people can't make the decisions that they need to make responsibly as citizens of a democracy.

I am sorry that today we heard a little bit of accusations that the truth was hidden from the American people; that taxpayer funds were misused; that Dr. Fauci had a motive to cover himself; that there was government censorship. There is not one iota of evidence for any of that.

When we say those things without evidence, what we do is we reduce the American people's faith in their government and, eventually, when their faith in their government is reduced to nothing, we lose our democracy, or we see people breaking windows downstairs to get into the government's Chambers because it has been so discredited.

But I am going to set that aside right now because this is an important, bipartisan effort to bring transparency around something that is going to be pretty frustrating for the American people because no matter what is declassified, it won't be dispositive about the origins of the coronavirus.

This is a really important first step. I hope it will clear up some of the speculation, some of the rumors that are out there; and it is emblematic of something that the chairman and I care a lot about, which is, that unless there is a really good reason to keep something classified, the American people are responsible enough to have that information.

I thank again Chairman Turner for his work on this issue, for his commitment to bipartisanship.

Madam Speaker, I urge support from the whole House for S. 619, and I yield back the balance of my time.