WASHINGTON — The Health and Human Services (HHS) Department has released 900 pages of records to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, according to an HHS official, as the Republican-led panel launches its review of the Biden administration's handling of the pandemic crisis.
Committee chairman Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Republican of Ohio, had requested records from the agency, including from National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, former White House COVID adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Beccera. The panel, which was previously controlled by Democrats, said it is probing whether COVID-19 originated from a lab in Wuhan, China and the Chinese Communist Party covered it up, as well as whether U.S. taxpayer dollars were being sent to the lab.
The committee requested phone records, calendars and dozens of sets of internal records from top federal health officials. Though HHS did not specify what records it shared with the panel Tuesday evening, an agency spokesperson told CBS News, "The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is committed to working in good faith to address the Select Subcommittee's oversight requests."
Wenstrup told CBS News he will consider subpoenas against Fauci, Becerra and other key officials, if full responses and answers are not provided to the panel's questions about COVID-19's origins and the federal agencies' response to the outbreak.
"I think there will be subpoenas for some," Wenstrup said. "Just being honest with you — I would hope that we don't have to do it very often."
The theory of a Wuhan "lab leak" has been previously argued by Senate Republicans and has been a particular focus of GOP congressional investigators and some cable news talk segments.
Though Fauci has answered a series of questions about the theory, including in Senate hearings, Wenstrup said Fauci has not done so to the same extent before a House panel.
"We have concerns about (Wuhan), and the type of research and studies that were taking place there," Wenstrup said. "So, we do want to dig in to that."
The panel's top ranking Democrat, Raul Ruiz, of California, said the committee must avoid allowing the investigation to fuel conspiracy theories about COVID. Ruiz told CBS News, "I want to make sure that we avoid — or they avoid — the extreme partisan rhetoric or a witch hunt that will villainize their targets."
Ruiz said, "I don't disagree that there is value in identifying the mechanism of identifying a virus quickly and our ability to quickly contain them. The question here is the method of the investigation." He added, "We're not interested in extreme partisan rhetoric that only fuels conspiratorial accusations, (which) villainizes individuals from the administration. We're interested in taking a scientific approach in order to save American lives."
The subcommittee on the pandemic is beginning its work under Republican control as the U.S. reaches the three-year mark of the pandemic. Wenstrup told CBS News the panel's initial set of investigations will also probe the impact of school closures and stay-at-home orders.
"I would hope that we do it so that we can bring some clarity and transparency to the American people," Wenstrup said. "The American people have a lot of distrust right now because they felt like they were told different things at different times."
Ruiz argues the panel should also explore the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of Americans. The subcommittee, he said, should "ensure the pandemic response is done with equity, making sure that those most vulnerable receive the attention and resources to help save as many lives as we possibly can, to really understand the experience of isolation."
Some Democrats have sharply criticized the inclusion on the panel of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, who has been accused of espousing conspiracy theories. Wenstrup said, "She has told me that she's concerned about her children and the effects on businesses, which is part of what we want to take a look at." He said, "I think those are reasonable things for us to look into."
Greene did not immediately return requests for comment.
Wenstrup and Ruiz both pledged efforts for bipartisan work in interviews with CBS News, but both acknowledged the pandemic responses by state and federal governments have aroused fiercely partisan reactions. Wenstrup said he hopes that he and Ruiz "can change that narrative a little bit and we can move forward in a professional way and have America see the way that we're trying to conduct this and get the answers for America so that we're a better country and more prepared in the future."
Ruiz said, "When you have individuals who are claiming false conspiracy for partisan reasons, you're creating doubt in the scientific process of vaccines that we know has saved countless of lives already in the millions."
"I don't care if you're a Republican or Democrat or independent," Ruiz said. "I care about saving lives as a physician."