WASHINGTON — The divided 118th Congress approved its first bill Friday, after lawmakers in both the House and Senate voted unanimously to send President Joe Biden legislation that would require declassification of intelligence on the origins of COVID-19.
The four-page bill, which the House voted 419-0 to clear, would require the Director of National Intelligence to “declassify any and all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of the Coronavirus Disease 2019” within 90 days of becoming law.
The measure allows the director to redact any information that would risk sources and methods the intelligence community used to gather the information.
The Democratically controlled Senate approved the bill earlier this month by unanimous consent, a fast-track process that allows that chamber to pass bills as long as no senator objects.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley introduced the bill with Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Florida Sen. Rick Scott as original co-sponsors. All are Republicans.
Connecticut Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said during floor debate that determining how COVID-19 began has been especially challenging due to the Chinese government.
“At every juncture, the PRC government has obfuscated and obstructed legitimate inquiries and investigations into the origins of the disease,” Himes said. “China’s approach has been deeply irresponsible and dangerous to global public health.”
That is one of the reasons, Himes said, Biden ordered the U.S. intelligence community to look into the origins of the virus, leading to an unclassified report in August 2021.
“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,” Himes said.
“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,” Himes added.
Declassifying more intelligence about the origins of COVID-19, Himes said, could be an “antidote to the speculation, the rumor and the theories that grow in the absence of good information.”
Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that Americans deserve “answers to every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, including how this virus was created.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the country with almost every household feeling its effects,” Turner said. “The United States death toll from this virus has surpassed 1 million people.”
Turner said the intelligence committee “is aware of classified information that could help inform the public why COVID-19 as a lab leak theory is not just a possibility, but approaches the idea that it is likely.”
The U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic held a hearing on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this week, with the majority of the panel’s lawmakers agreeing the scientific and intelligence communities should be left alone to determine the virus’ origins.
While there is yet no consensus about the origins of COVID-19, the experts who testified before the panel said researchers are working to determine if it was a spillover event from nature or if the virus was accidentally leaked from a laboratory.
Congress passed a joint resolution earlier this week to block a restructuring of the District of Columbia’s criminal code that the city government had approved.
While the joint resolution moved through Congress much like a bill and is expected to garner Biden’s signature to take effect, it’s not technically a bill. That makes the origins of COVID-19 bill the first legislation to pass the divided Congress this year.