House Republican leaders and doctors gathered Thursday morning for a news conference ostensibly to urge Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus amid rising infections across the United States, but they used the event to attack Democrats whom they said, without proof, had covered up the origins of the virus.
The appearance by the second and third-ranking House Republicans, Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Elise Stefanik of New York, alongside a dozen doctors suggested that a resurgence in the spread of the virus, driven by the more contagious Delta variant, had prompted the party to change its tone and confront the reluctance among its constituents to take the Covid-19 vaccine.
“I would encourage people to get the vaccine,” Mr. Scalise said near the end of the event, when pressed about his position on it. “I have high confidence in it. I got it myself.”
But he and other Republicans spent most of their time on Thursday discussing unproven claims that the Chinese had released a virulent, human-made virus on the world and charging that Democrats had ignored it.
The event in front of the Capitol had been billed as a “press conference to discuss the need for individuals to get vaccinated, uncover the origins of the pandemic, and keep schools and businesses open.” Yet Republicans who attended, many of whom represent constituencies that have refused to get the vaccine, could not seem to bring themselves to hammer home the importance of doing so.
Even the doctors who emphasized vaccinations, Representative Andy Harris of Maryland and Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas, soft-pedaled and qualified their statements.
“If you are at risk, you should be getting this vaccine,” Dr. Harris said, adding, “We urge all Americans to talk to their doctors about the risks of Covid, talk to their doctors about the benefits of getting vaccinated, and then come to a decision that’s right for them.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone age 12 or over — not only those at higher risk — get vaccinated against the coronavirus as soon as possible.
When pressed, Representative Greg Murphy, Republican of North Carolina, demurred: “This vaccine is a medicine, and just like with any other medicines, there are side effects and this is a personal decision.”
The emphasis on the so-called lab leak theory was something of a surprise given the surge of infections concentrated in rural, strongly Republican regions of the country.
Nationally, the average of new coronavirus infections has surged 171 percent in 14 days, to more than 41,300 a day on Wednesday, and deaths — a lagging number — are up 42 percent from two weeks ago, to nearly 250, according to a New York Times database. Still, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths remain at a fraction from their previous devastating peaks. Vaccines remain effective against the worst outcomes of Covid-19 including from the Delta variant.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reported at the end of June that 86 percent of Democrats had at least one shot, compared with 52 percent of Republicans. An analysis by The Times in April found that the least vaccinated counties in the country had one thing in common: They voted for Mr. Trump.
But Dr. Murphy said the notion that conservatives are hesitant to receive the vaccine “is not only disingenuous; it’s a lie.”
As for the lab leak theory, one after another, Republicans framed the issue as virtually settled: Research at a virus laboratory in Wuhan, China, created the novel coronavirus through risky “gain of function” experiments, then leaked it into the world.
“Criminals have been convicted on less circumstantial evidence than currently exists, and every day more evidence has revealed,” Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa said.
Recently, some scientists have urged that the possibility of a lab leak be taken seriously, alongside the possibility that the coronavirus emerged naturally, most likely from an animal. But they are mostly looking at the possibility that a naturally evolved virus was present in the lab and escaped, not that the virus was created deliberately. Even some of the most vocal scientific supporters of a lab leak possibility do not claim that there is definitive evidence of the origin of the virus.
Rather than cover up the matter, President Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies in late May to investigate the origins of the coronavirus and to report back in 90 days.
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