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U.S. senators call for a national commission to probe the start of the pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What have we learned in the nearly two years since the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Wuhan, China? A group of senators from different parties have joined together in calling for a national commission on the pandemic similar to the one on the 9/11 attacks. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York and Republican Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas are two of them. I asked them what specific questions they think the commission can answer.

ROGER MARSHALL: Well, certainly, Americans deserve to know the origins of COVID. But even beyond that, we want to know what our responses look like and how we can improve it, right? You know, if a plane crashes, we want to understand why. As a physician, if a patient dies, that's why we do an autopsy. We want to find out, what can we learn to help future people as well?

MARTIN: Senator Gillibrand?

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: So as senator from New York, we lived through 9/11. And we had a 9/11 Commission to do the deep dive of, how did it happen? Why didn't we see the warning signs? How could it have been prevented? And the 9/11 Commission Report has been so helpful in preventing similar terrorist attacks on New York and all across the country.

So I know firsthand how important doing that deep dive is, getting to the understanding of, how did it happen? Why did it happen? How do you prevent it in the future? And how do you prepare for the next pandemic?

MARTIN: But if I may, the 9/11 Commission, as you know, had the benefit of having to interrogate only domestic agencies. I mean, they had the full support of the U.S. government. Do you have the support of the Chinese government? I mean, how do you get any of these answers unless you have cooperation from China?

GILLIBRAND: Well, that's not true, Rachel. Part of the 9/11 report was a deep dive about the Saudi Arabian involvement, and that's been an issue that the 9/11 families have been seeking answers on still today. And so it is very similar. And we will have to engage in investigative work, and we will try to engage the Chinese. But whether it is overtly or covertly, we'll have to do the work. It has to be done.

MARTIN: But the U.S. Intelligence Community has already weighed in on this. I mean, it's put the full force of its weight into finding out how and where COVID started. They've released its report. They weren't able to find a conclusive answer. What makes you think a national commission can do better?

GILLIBRAND: I think there's a lot more work that can be done. I've certainly not concluded that we have all the information. And there's also a lot of scientific work that still needs to be done.

Senator Marshall and I had a hearing - an open hearing - and we had scientists testify during that hearing. And the information they shared with us was that there's open-source data that supports many different sources of inquiry for the origins of COVID.

MARSHALL: Yeah. And if I could add, I think that there's a lot of information that needs to be declassified. There's a lot of evidence that would suggest China was covering this up since September of 2019, and we need a nonpolitical approach to reviewing that. And I think as we make things more transparent, then I think China's going to have to come a little bit more forward.

GILLIBRAND: And the other thing about the...

MARTIN: I have to interrupt for just a second, Senator...

GILLIBRAND: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Just because the statement from Senator Marshall just now - I mean, you've just said that China was aware of the virus. That's counter to the conclusion from the U.S. Intelligence Community. The report from just this past August concluded that COVID-19 was not developed as a bioweapon and that the Chinese government had no advanced knowledge of the virus.

GILLIBRAND: I don't know that that was the conclusion of that report. In fact, I think the conclusions in the report were far more ambiguous. And, in fact, I think the report was inconclusive, that they could not attribute the start of the virus. And so when you have an inconclusive conclusion, that means more investigation is warranted.

MARTIN: So I guess the follow-up question that - thank you for the clarification.

GILLIBRAND: Yeah.

MARTIN: But does that mean you're just going to tell the Intelligence Community to go back at it - that they didn't find the right information, so try, try again?

GILLIBRAND: So there's a lot of ways to get information. And the purpose of this investigation and this commission is to not only find more clarity on origin, but also on prevention and also on preparation. So as you know, we didn't have the personal protective equipment stockpiled appropriately. We certainly didn't have the appropriate rainy day funds statewide in various states around the country. We didn't have hospitals prepared for pandemics. We weren't prepared.

MARSHALL: Yeah. Rachel, if I could add - as a physician, I was volunteering in southwest Kansas in March of 2020, the same time New York was the tip of the spear. We had more patients than ICU beds, more patients than we had ventilators. Well, how come? I had to call the White House on a Friday afternoon, and on Sunday, we had two Black Hawk helicopters bringing us in ventilators. We don't want that to be happening next time.

GILLIBRAND: And the other thing is, Rachel, what's actually happening in the United States today. We have this vaccine hesitancy. We have anger and division in the country about how to protect families from disease. We need this commission to be able to investigate, what is the best way to do public health messaging? How come public schools aren't considered critical infrastructure? How come they weren't first to get personal protective equipment? How come vaccines weren't readily available for frontline workers? Like, we hadn't thought about looking at our economy in the lens of a global pandemic.

MARTIN: Senator Marshall, there are conservative pundits who downplayed the virus in the early days - still do, but did the most damage in the early days of the pandemic. President Trump himself downplayed the virus. What kind of role should this commission play in investigating how the Trump administration and other public actors handled this?

MARSHALL: Yeah, the commission can take this wherever they want to. I want them to investigate the response of the White House but in a nonpolitical fashion. That question kind of starts feeling political to me. So that's why I think we need to get this outside of the confines of the Capitol. I don't want this to be a political witch hunt.

GILLIBRAND: Yeah, and it's not intended to do that. So for example, the 9/11 Commission didn't investigate George W. Bush and, did he make mistakes? That wasn't the point. Like, it's not about saying who made the mistakes. It was about - we were just attacked. How do we prevent this from happening again?

MARTIN: You think your colleagues are on board? I mean, you couldn't get a January 6 national commission approved.

GILLIBRAND: Yeah, because I think this is bipartisan and this is intentional about prevention. And we've done it before. The 9/11 Commission was extremely effective.

MARTIN: Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Republican Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas, thank you to both of you. We appreciate it.

GILLIBRAND: Thank you.

MARSHALL: You're welcome.

GILLIBRAND: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGIA ANNE MULDROW'S "BROKENFOLKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.