An internal investigation found that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) did not execute proper oversight of the nonprofit group EcoHealth Alliance, which was awarded nearly $8 million in federal research grants to study bat coronaviruses in China.
The Department of Health and Human Services inspector general released a 64-page report Wednesday that states NIH "did not effectively monitor or take timely action" to ensure that EcoHealth Alliance was complying with the terms of its grant awards and sub-awards. EcoHealth, an environmental group that works to prevent the outbreak of emerging diseases, is under intense scrutiny from Republican lawmakers for its relationship to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, which was the recipient of $600,000 in federal tax dollars subawarded by EcoHealth to research coronaviruses in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other GOP lawmakers have alleged that risky research conducted at the Wuhan lab on the taxpayer's dime may be connected to the origins of the pandemic. Federal health officials have disputed this claim, showing that the viruses studied under the terms of EcoHealth's grant "were so far distant from an evolutionary standpoint from SARS-CoV-2 that they could not have possibly been the source of SARS-CoV-2 or the COVID-19 pandemic."
Still, the inspector general's report comes just as House Republicans are set to begin new inquiries into the origins of the virus, and it paints a distressing picture of how NIH did not follow its established rules and procedures with regard to EcoHealth Alliance's grants.
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The investigation did not assess the scientific results of EcoHealth Alliance's experiments or evaluate if those results posed a risk or qualified as gain-of-function research – an area of study in which viruses are manipulated to become more contagious, or even deadly, so that scientists can prepare vaccines and prevent the next pandemic. Critics say such research risks accidentally causing a pandemic, and NIH has guidelines meant to apply strict oversight to any federally-funded gain-of-function projects.
However, the inspector general's report found NIH did not adequately follow its policies and procedures with respect to three grants to EcoHealth Alliance between 2014 and 2021, totaling about $8 million.
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"Specifically, NIH did not ensure EcoHealth in a timely manner submitted a progress report that was 2 years late and that NIH concluded contained evidence of a virus with growth that should have been reported immediately; did not ensure EcoHealth publicly reported required subaward data; and did not follow proper procedures to terminate an award to EcoHealth," the inspector general wrote.
The report also rebuked EcoHealth for failing to ensure that its subawards were compliant with federal regulations, including monitoring and reporting requirements for subrecipients like the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
"These deficiencies occurred because NIH and EcoHealth did not follow established policies and procedures," the report stated.
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Additionally, EcoHealth improperly spent $89,171 of its grant money, according to the inspector general. The group said in a statement that those costs amounted to roughly 1% of its NIH grant awards and said the audit process revealed that EcoHealth had also been underpaid by the NIH by $126,391.
EcoHealth noted there were only two substantive areas of disagreement with the inspector general's findings – one with regard to the timeliness of its reporting on one grant and another disagreement on whether an experiment exhibited "enhanced virus growth" that should have been immediately flagged for further review by NIH.
"We do not agree with the OIG’s characterization of these two issues and have provided a detailed explanation and additional supporting documentation to the OIG," EcoHealth said.
The inspector general's report drew a swift response from Republican lawmakers, who reintroduced legislation Wednesday to ban EcoHealth Alliance from receiving federal funding.
"It is unconscionable that EcoHealth Alliance repeatedly funneled American taxpayer dollars to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab controlled by the Chinese Communist Party that conducts dangerous and potentially deadly research," said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., who introduced the Defund EcoHealth Alliance Act in the House.
"Congress must ensure Americans are never footing the bill for risky experiments in foreign labs run by our adversaries," he added.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.