More than two dozen Republican House members demanded the Health and Human Services Department's independent watchdog investigate the National Institutes of Health’s response to concerns raised about taxpayer-funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of the potential origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
GOP members called for a “prompt and thorough investigation into the NIH’s response to biosafety concerns” at the Wuhan lab, asking HHS Principal Deputy Inspector General Christi Grimm to look into what funding the Wuhan lab received from the United States in the past, if the lab was still eligible for U.S. taxpayer support, and whether U.S. funding continued.
Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organization’s coronavirus origins investigative team who worked with the Wuhan lab for years and helped steer NIH funding to it for bat coronavirus research through his EcoHealth Alliance, criticized the Biden administration for appearing skeptical of the WHO’s preliminary findings following two weeks of investigation in Wuhan, the city where the novel coronavirus was first detected, and defended China to Chinese Communist Party-linked outlets.
Republicans pointed to a “growing belief among experts, including the U.S. State Department, that the pandemic … may have been caused by dangerous coronavirus research gone awry at the Chinese Communist Party-run bioagent laboratory.” U.S. Embassy officials in China raised concerns in 2018 about biosecurity at the Wuhan lab.
“We are gravely concerned about the NIH’s relationship with both EcoHealth and WIV, and the Agency’s handling of allegations that the COVID-19 pandemic was potentially caused by an NIH-funded laboratory at WIV,” the GOP members said. “We also are alarmed that WIV is eligible to receive additional funding from the NIH through 2024.”
The GOP asked the HHS watchdog to investigate when NIH was first aware that coronavirus experiments were conducted at the Wuhan lab, if NIH officials reviewed the Wuhan lab’s experiments to assess compliance with HHS’s pandemic guidelines, when the NIH became aware of biosafety concerns, and whether NIH officials communicated with EcoHealth Alliance or the lab to coordinate messaging to respond to the lab leak hypothesis. The lawmakers asked when the Wuhan lab’s eligibility to receive NIH funding ends, if it is currently receiving NIH support, and how much NIH funding it had gotten.
The HHS inspector general's office did not immediately respond to the Washington Examiner's request for comment in response to the letter, which had a list of signatories led by Reps. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Nancy Mace of South Carolina.
China denies COVID-19 came from the lab, questions whether it even originated in China, and has pushed conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus originating on frozen food or with the U.S. military.
Matthew Pottinger, deputy national security adviser under former President Donald Trump, argued the “circumstantial evidence” that COVID-19 originated through human error, such as an accidental Wuhan lab escape, “far outweighs” the evidence that it was a natural outbreak. He added, “We have very strong reason to believe that the Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory.” A State Department fact sheet noted the Wuhan lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan criticized China for blocking coronavirus data but declined to stand by the declassified U.S. intelligence.
EcoHealth Alliance received at least $3.4 million from 2014 to 2019 and funded research at the Wuhan lab. NIH told the Washington Examiner the Wuhan lab is not an NIH grantee but that EcoHealth Alliance received NIH grants then provided a sub-award to the Wuhan lab. The agency said its relationship “is with the primary recipient of NIH funding,” such as EcoHealth Alliance, and “not with the recipient of subawards” such as the Wuhan lab. NIH said it “does not participate in establishing the terms of the subaward” and the grant recipient “is directly accountable for the performance of the project.”
The agency said the grant to EcoHealth Alliance was terminated April 24 but reinstated July 8, though “all activities related to the grant were immediately suspended until EcoHealth Alliance provides information and documentation demonstrating that EcoHealth Alliance and WIV have satisfied concerns NIH has about non-compliance” with award requirements.
“After a careful review of the grant, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases determined the research in the grant was not gain-of-function research because it did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied,” NIH said, adding that this research was not subject to its “gain-of-function research funding pause” or framework on research funding.
The Wuhan lab maintains a Foreign Assurance with NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. NIH told the Washington Examiner that “an Assurance does not determine whether an organization can or will receive a grant,” but that means, the agency said, the Wuhan lab is in compliance with NIH’s policy on using lab animals.
Jen Psaki, Biden's press secretary, was asked Tuesday whether gain-of-function research facilities such as the Wuhan lab should be eligible for U.S. funding.
“We support a robust international investigation [into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic]. We also have taken steps in the State Department to ensure we have full staffing in our Beijing embassy to ensure we have eyes and ears on the ground,” Psaki replied. “There’s no funding anticipated or planned to go to that [Wuhan] facility at this time, so I don’t have any additional updates beyond that.”
NIH did not immediately respond to the Washington Examiner’s questions about the Wuhan lab receiving U.S. funds and whether U.S. intelligence assessments on the coronavirus origins has any bearing on any relevant decisions.
WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek said this month the possibility that the coronavirus may have escaped from the Wuhan lab didn’t merit further inquiry, stressing a jump from an animal to another animal to humans was most likely. But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said more study on the lab leak hypothesis was needed.
Pottinger criticized the WHO, arguing that “when it comes to this investigation into the origins, unfortunately, we're seeing a panel that's been sent to China that is deeply conflicted.”
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