June 30 (UPI) -- House Republicans on Tuesday held a forum of experts discussing the theory that a leak at a Chinese virology lab is responsible for the coronavirus pandemic as they urged Democratic lawmakers to fully investigate the virus' origins amid renewed interest in the theory often labeled a conspiracy.
The Republicans of House committees on oversight and the coronavirus, adamant that the Wuhan lab is the origins of the pandemic, accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats of stonewalling GOP attempts to take up resolutions or answer their requests for a full probe.
"Speaker Pelosi, this is not a distraction," Rep. Steve Scalise, ranking member of the subcommittee, said during his opening remarks to the forum. "This is exponentially worse than Chernobyl, and the American people are demanding answers and deserve the truth."
The theory that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic, has grown in prevalence in recent months.
In May, 18 scientists published a letter in the journal Science calling for an investigation into the Wuhan theory as there wasn't enough evidence to rule it out as a possibility.
Scalise has sent two letters -- one in late May and the other in early June -- requesting the House oversight and reform committee as well as the select committee on the coronavirus to hold panels on the theory. Tuesday's forum was organized after those requests were rejected June 11 by the committees' Democratic leaders.
The House has also yet to take up a bill the Senate passed late last month to direct the National Intelligence Director Avril Haines to declassify all information about potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The evidence continues to mount that this was a manmade disaster that started in the Wuhan lab," Scalise said. "If that is the case, then it might be the crime of the century -- exponentially worse than Chernobyl."
The Republicans pointed to instances of China withholding information about its initial outbreak and accusing it of lying about whether the virus could be transferred from person to person as Beijing's efforts to conceal the severity of its outbreak, which they said was aided by the World Health Organization, a criticism of the U.N. health body that former President Donald Trump often repeated and used in his attempt to pull the United States from it while in office.
Rep. James Comer, ranking member of the House oversight and reform committee, also accused the WHO of aiding China in its alleged cover-up by producing a "one-sided report" on the pandemic's origins in April.
The report, which said the lab leak theory was "extremely unlikely" and its origin was most probably southeast Asian wildlife farms, was followed by the United States, the European Union and 13 nations as well as the WHO calling for a second investigation with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stating the first one was not extensive enough as China limited access to information.
"How could we expect anything close to a full investigation and accurate report when the government seemingly responsible for the outbreak controls the entire investigation?" Comer said. "China lied, the World Health Organization complied and people died."
Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health under the Trump administration, told the lawmakers that he believes the lab leak theory is the "most likely" cause of the pandemic though they lack indisputable evidence.
"The bottom line is I believe it is too much of a coincidence that a worldwide pandemic caused by a novel bat coronavirus that cannot be found in nature started just a few miles away from a secretive laboratory doing potentially dangerous research on bat coronavirus," he said. "Sometimes the most obvious explanation is the correct one."
"It is critical to our nation, to the American people, to the world and to future generations that we develop a bipartisan consensus on the truth of what happened and I respectfully encourage the entire Congress to come together as truth seekers and truth tellers to accomplish this objective," he said.
David Asher, who headed the State Department's COVID-19 investigation during the Trump administration, told the panel that the world is entering an era of biological warfare and the pandemic was the beginning of a "threat level" that will continue for generations to come.
He said he believes the Chinese developed the virus with funding from its military and that while it escaped the lab via an accident Beijing allowed it to be weaponized.
An investigation into whether Beijing had violated the biological weapons convention was conducted, he said, and "what we found truly disturbed us."
"The Chinese were working on a military-supported program, which they did not declare under the Biological Weapons Convention," he said. "So they lied."
Democrats did not participate in the forum. They have rebutted the Republican calls to investigate the theory by pointing to President Joe Biden's directive to his intelligence committees to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A report from that investigation is to be produced by Aug. 24, and Democrats have said they will review the intelligence community's report following its 90-day investigation before pursuing future options.
"We share your desire to understand the origins of the pandemic," Rep. James Clyburn, chairman of the subcommittee on the coronavirus, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the oversight and reform committee, said to Scalise in their joint letter. "We have confidence in the ability of the Intelligence Community and our diplomatic partners to conduct a robust inquiry into this important issues, which must follow the facts and must not be manipulated for partisan purposes."