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Joni Ernst and Anthony Bellotti: Suppressing Information Might Work in China, but We Should Not Stand for It

It has been over a year since the COVID-19 virus detected in and around Wuhan, China started a pandemic. The exact origins of the virus still remain a mystery. That is not entirely an accident.

The virus emerged in one of the world's most closed societies ruled by a ruthless authoritarian regime that has no tolerance for truth or transparency. The recently released World Health Organization (WHO) report on COVID-19's origins was widely criticized by the U.S. government and 13 of our allies—including the head of the WHO itself—because the Communist Party of China withheld data and refused to fully cooperate with efforts to learn how the virus emerged.

Finding COVID-19's source is not about assigning blame. It is about understanding how it originated and preventing a similar occurrence from happening again.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directors for former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb and others believe a possible source of the virus was a leak from the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which houses one of the largest collections of coronaviruses in the world.

The lab has a history of concerning activities. In 2017 and 2018, U.S. officials who visited WIV sent several warnings back to the State Department that studies were being conducted on dangerous coronaviruses from bats that "can be transmitted to humans" in a lab with "serious" safety problems.

In the fall of 2019, researchers at this same lab reportedly became sick with COVID-like symptoms—just months prior to the first public case of the new pathogen. After the outbreak began, Chinese officials ordered the destruction of coronavirus samples.

One additional troubling fact is that the Wuhan lab received funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2015, something that should have been disclosed to U.S. taxpayers as required by federal law.

A year ago, we exposed nearly $600,000 in NIH funding—American tax dollars—funneled to WIV by a U.S. non-profit. This perilous partnership went largely unnoticed and unchecked for years because the U.S. organization was consistently violating a federal transparency law. It failed to publicly disclose how much taxpayer money was sent to the Communist Party-run lab.

While we can't force Communist China to be more forthcoming about what was happening at the Wuhan lab, we can at least expect our own government to be open and transparent, right? Think again.

Not only was this long-standing law violated, but the NIH did nothing to enforce it or hold violators accountable for keeping their spending a secret.

Compliance is not optional. This is not China. The U.S. government is not above the law.

The NIH needs to answer questions about why it allowed funds to go to this lab and what it knew about the reported problems there. It also needs to explain why it broke federal spending transparency law that would have given Congress, and most importantly the American people, a heads up that tax dollars were shipped to a virus lab run by the CCP.

WIV's coronavirus experiments were also receiving payouts from the Pentagon and the State Department. The existing funding disclosure law was only extended to the Defense Department spending this winter and it does not yet apply to the Department of State. The Cost Openness and Spending Transparency (COST) Act that we're trying to pass now would help close this loophole. It combats secretive U.S. spending in foreign countries, extends common-sense transparency provisions across all federal agencies and withholds taxpayer funding for noncompliance.

A transparent government that is accountable to the people is a fundamental principle of our democracy. That is what makes a government "of the people" different than Communist China's centralized control. The world deserves real scientific answers about how this pandemic—which so far claimed the lives of nearly 3 million people internationally—started. 

Click here to read the op-ed in Newsweek. 

Senator Joni Ernst, a combat veteran, is Iowa's junior U.S. senator.

Anthony Bellotti is the founder and president of White Coat Waste Project, a 3 million member taxpayer watchdog group.