Republican lawmakers have launched an investigation to determine whether the 2019 World Military Games held in Wuhan, China, was a super-spreader event for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The games, held Oct. 18-28, 2019, featured more than 9,000 international athletes traveling from more than 100 countries, many of whom later reported getting sick with COVID-19-like symptoms. In letters to the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Health and Human Services (HHS), Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) are asking for information on the possibility that U.S. Army troops who participated in the games contracted COVID-19 infections.
Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin was the first to report the lawmakers' inquiry. Identifying whether participants in the 2019 games were exposed to COVID-19 is crucial to developing a timeline of the pandemic's spread, which could help scientists discover the origins of the virus and take steps to prevent or mitigate the damage from the next pandemic.
As the covid-19 pandemic took hold worldwide in early 2020, athletes from several countries — including France, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg — claimed publicly they had contracted what they believed to be covid-19 at the games in Wuhan, based on their symptoms and how their illnesses spread to their loved ones. In Washington, military leaders either dismissed the idea out of hand or weren't aware of it. Meanwhile, no one performed any antibody testing or disease tracing on these thousands of athletes. No one even attempted to find out whether the games in Wuhan was, in fact, the first international pandemic superspreader event.
If more evidence were discovered, it would add to the growing body of evidence that the virus was circulating in Wuhan as early as October 2019, months before the Chinese government acknowledged it to the rest of the world. U.S. intelligence reports have said that researchers at the Wuhan Institute ofVirology were hospitalized with covid-like symptoms in November 2019. But U.S. officials have said they have other information suggesting that the outbreak began even earlier.
"These reports are extremely troubling and cast further doubt on the CCP's official timeline regarding the spread of this virus," Rep. Gallagher said. "Information involving the health of those who participated in the 2019 games could provide critical insight into understanding where and when COVID-19 first emerged, and it's essential for the Biden Administration to immediately release this information to the public."
In his letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Gallagher pressed for information on whether the 280 members of the U.S. delegation have been tested for antibodies and whether any of them reported falling ill after attending the 2019 games. He also said he wants to know if any of the home military facilities of the participating athletes and staff experienced outbreaks of illnesses consistent with COVID-19 symptoms and if there are any ongoing investigations into these matters.
"Given unanswered questions surrounding the origins of the pandemic, information involving the health of service members who participated in the 2019 games could provide key evidence in understanding when COVID-19 first emerged," he wrote.
Sen. Marshall asked similar questions of HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a separate letter, demanding to know if the department is aware of any U.S. athletes who fell ill after returning from Wuhan.
"The World Military Games' proximity to the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] and the new details of the athletes potentially being exposed to COVID-19 while participating in the event present an alarming coincidence our government must investigate to establish an accurate timeline of the outbreak," he wrote. "If these individuals were exposed in October, this evidence will further help us understand the origin of COVID-19 and prepare for future outbreaks."
A spokesman for the Defense Department told the Washington Post that the DoD has no knowledge of COVID-19 infections among U.S. troops who attended the 2019 World Military Games. He added that there is no evidence that any U.S. military personnel were infected before the Trump administration implemented travel restrictions in early 2020.
Five senior national security officials who worked for the Trump administration told the Post that no one thought to test the athletes who returned from Wuhan because at the time it was believed the pandemic outbreak began in December 2019, not earlier that autumn. It wasn't until Jan. 15, 2021, that the U.S. government publicly stated there was reason to believe researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick with COVID-19-like symptoms in the fall of 2019, suggesting the virus was spreading far earlier than thought.
David Feith, a former State Department official, told the Post that the Trump administration's only consideration of the Wuhan Military World Games came in response to Chinese propaganda issued in March 2020 that accused U.S. Army personnel of bringing the virus to Wuhan from Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, where the U.S. Army bioresearch program is based. U.S. officials dismissed the claims because the first reported cases of COVID-19 were in Wuhan, not Maryland.
"We were aware in the administration of the Chinese government's misinformation campaign accusing the U.S. military of bringing covid to Wuhan at those games, which obviously we didn't take seriously and didn't consider to be a good-faith effort to get to the bottom of it," Feith said. "To the extent there are now or there were all along credible reports of sick athletes from those games, we should certainly chase them down and learn more."