Biden Administration Strips Federal Funding From Nonprofit at Center of COVID Lab Leak Controversy

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Today, the Biden administration suspended federal funding to the scientific nonprofit whose research is at the center of credible theories that the COVID-19 pandemic was started via a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

This morning, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it was immediately suspending three grants provided to the New York-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) as it starts the process of debarring the organization from receiving any federal funds.

“The immediate suspension of [EcoHealth Alliance] is necessary to protect the public interest and due to a cause of so serious or compelling a nature that it affects EHA’s present responsibility,” wrote HHS Deputy Secretary for Acquisitions Henrietta Brisbon in a memorandum signed this morning.

For years now, EcoHealth has generated immense controversy for its use of federal grant money to support gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab.

In a memo justifying its funding suspension, HHS said that EcoHealth had failed to properly monitor the work it was supporting at Wuhan. It also failed to properly report on the results of experiments showing that the hybrid viruses it was creating there had an improved ability to infect human cells.

Congressional Republicans leading an investigation into EcoHealth’s research in Wuhan, and the role it may have played in starting the pandemic via a lab leak, cheered HHS’s decision.

“EcoHealth facilitated gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China without proper oversight, willingly violated multiple requirements of its multimillion-dollar National Institutes of Health [NIH] grant, and apparently made false statements to the NIH,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R–Ohio), chair of the House’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in a statement. “These actions are wholly abhorrent, indefensible, and must be addressed with swift action.”

Beginning in 2014, EcoHealth received a grant from NIH’s National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to study bat coronavirus in China. Its initial scope of work involved collecting and cataloging viruses in the wild and studying them in the lab to spot which ones might be primed to “spillover” into humans and cause a pandemic.

Soon enough, EcoHealth used some of the viruses they’d collected to create “chimeric” or hybrid viruses that might be better able to infect human lung cells in genetically engineered (humanized) mice.

This so-called “gain-of-function” research has long been controversial for its potential to create deadly pandemic pathogens. In 2014, the Obama administration paused federal funding of gain-of-function research that might turn SARS, MERS, or flu viruses into more transmissible respiratory diseases in mammals.

In 2016, NIH flagged EcoHealth’s work as likely violating the 2014 pause.

EcoHealth President Peter Daszak argued to NIH at the time that the viruses his outfit was creating had not been proven to infect human cells and were genetically different enough from past pandemic viruses that they didn’t fall under the Obama administration pause.

NIH accepted this argument under the condition that EcoHealth immediately stop its work and notify the agency if any of its hybrid viruses did show increased viral growth in humanized mice.

But when these hybrid viruses did show increased viral growth in mice, EcoHealth did not immediately stop work or notify NIH. It instead waited until it submitted an annual progress report in 2018 to disclose the results of its experiments.

A second progress report that EcoHealth submitted in 2021, two years after its due date, also showed its hybrid viruses were demonstrating increased viral growth and enhanced lethality in humanized mice.

In testimony to the House’s coronavirus subcommittee earlier this month, Daszak claimed that EcoHealth attempted to report the results of its gain-of-function experiments on time in 2019, but was frozen out of NIH’s reporting system.

The HHS memo released today says a forensic investigation found no evidence that EcoHealth was locked out of NIH’s reporting system. The department also said that EcoHealth had failed to produce requested lab notes and other materials from the Wuhan lab detailing the work being done there and the lab’s biosafety conditions.

These all amount to violations of EcoHealth’s grant agreement and NIH grant policy, thus warranting debarment from future federal funds, reads the HHS memo.

That EcoHealth would be stripped of its federal funding shouldn’t come as too great a shock to anyone who watched Daszak’s congressional testimony from earlier this month. Even Democrats on the committee openly accused Daszak of being misleading about EcoHealth’s work and manipulating facts.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D–Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House’s coronavirus subcommittee, welcomed EcoHealth’s suspension, saying in a press release that the nonprofit failed its “obligation to meet the utmost standards of transparency and accountability to the American public.”

An HHS Office of the Inspector General report from last year had already found that EcoHealth had failed to submit progress reports on time or effectively monitor its subgrantee, the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

When grilling Daszak, Democrats on the Coronavirus Subcommittee went to great lengths to not criticize NIH’s oversight of EcoHealth’s work. The HHS debarment memo likewise focuses only on EcoHealth’s failures to abide by NIH policy and its grant conditions.

Nevertheless, it seems pretty obvious that NIH was failing to abide by the 2014 pause on gain-of-function funding when it allowed EcoHealth to go ahead with creating hybrid coronaviruses under the condition that they stop if the viruses did prove more virulent.

NIH compounded that oversight failure by not stopping EcoHealth’s funding when the nonprofit did, in fact, create more virulent viruses, and not following up on a never-submitted progress report detailing more gain-of-function research until two years later.

The House Subcommittee’s investigation into NIH’s role in gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab is ongoing. Tomorrow it will interview NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawerence Tabak. In June, it will interview former NIAID Director Anthony Fauci.

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