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Federal biosecurity board cut back meetings as US resumed gain-of-function research funding

Feds twice flagged EcoHealth Alliance research with Wuhan Institute of Virology four years apart but backed off each time. Nonprofit kept getting new grants after belated cutoff.

Published: March 22, 2023 11:25pm

A federal committee that advises the government on "biological research that has the potential for misuse" met only once between 2017, when a 3-year moratorium on federal funding of gain-of-function (GOF) research was lifted, and 2022, according to its meeting schedule, leaving the panel largely dormant through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, widely believed to have been caused by a virus leaked from a Chinese lab conducting U.S.-funded GoF research.

Gain of function research improves the ability of a pathogen to cause disease.

It wasn't just the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity that appeared to relax its vigilance against GoF risks, as GoF research funding resumed under the Department of Health and Human Services' so-called P3CO framework for "enhanced potential pandemic pathogens" (ePPP).

(The department claimed at the time that its framework considers "biosafety and biosecurity risks, and appropriate risk mitigation strategies.")

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases twice flagged Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) research funded by grant recipient EcoHealth Alliance for potential GoF elements, before and after the GoF funding resumption, and twice reversed course, according to an HHS inspector general report in January.

Investigative watchdog group Empower Oversight filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the National Institutes of Health and IG in response to the report. 

The open records request seeks "comprehensive communications" regarding the EcoHealth grant and then-NIAID Director Anthony Fauci's discussions with EcoHealth President Peter Daszak in mid-2019, when, under the terms of the grant, the nonprofit should have reported an "enhanced growth" in a WIV-studied coronavirus. 

NIH did not request that undelivered 2019 progress report until nearly two years later, the IG found. "This oversight failure is particularly concerning because NIH had previously raised concerns with EcoHealth about the nature of the research being performed," it said. 

EcoHealth has previously provided hard evidence that it mentioned WIV's unintentional enhancement of a bat coronavirus in an April 2018 submission to NIH.

Though EcoHealth agreed to cut off WIV at NIH's urging in April 2020 because the Chinese lab may have leaked SARS-CoV-2, the agency nonetheless yanked the nonprofit's award "for convenience" and permitted no appeal, violating NIH's own rules and federal regulations, the IG said.

EcoHealth didn't lack federal funding for long. NIH's grant database shows that in June 2020 the nonprofit received the first of seven new grants totaling nearly $7 million.

Created during the George W. Bush administration and housed in NIH's Office of Science Policy, NSABB met at least twice a year from 2014-2016 before sharply pulling back gatherings for nearly five years, just as EcoHealth was using U.S. taxpayer money for research at WIV that would raise repeated alarms.

NSABB held its first meeting since May 2017, six months before the three-year GoF pause was lifted, on Jan. 23, 2020, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wouldn't meet again until Feb. 28, 2022, followed by two more meetings in less than a year.

The 2020 minutes refer to the emerging pandemic only once and don't mention where it started, either in China or eight miles from WIV, despite board members' acknowledgment that the federal government is "probably" the main U.S. funding source for GoF research.

Also missing: any specific name for the novel coronavirus. The World Health Organization had already dubbed it "2019-nCov," to be replaced by "COVID-19" in February. The meeting agenda is even more disconnected from the prior several weeks of reports from China.

Summarizing a panel discussion on ePPP transparency and security and the lifting of the GoF pause, the minutes emphasize that ePPP does not include "the coronavirus responsible for the current outbreak" because it is "naturally circulating." 

Yet Journal of Virology Editor in Chief Rozanne Sandri-Goldin admitted she didn't know the details of "Chinese biosafety review conditions" even though 60% of journal submissions were coming from overseas, mostly China, and some research teams said they meet those Chinese conditions, according to the minutes.

Senate Health Committee Republicans said in an October interim report on COVID origins that WIV was conducting "genetic recombination experiments" at biosafety levels as low as BSL-2, which the U.S. CDC says is for microbes that "pose moderate hazards to laboratorians." 

The report cited a September 2019 paper in the Elsevier journal Biosafety and Health by an official at China's own CDC warning that "a comprehensive system of legal and regulatory standards is lacking for BSL-2 laboratories in China."

The Office of Science Policy, which houses NSABB, did not respond to Just the News queries about why it suddenly yanked back meeting frequency after the GoF pause ended and again after the pandemic started.

The HHS IG report shows that NIAID twice accepted EcoHealth's explanations for why its WIV research shouldn't trigger further scrutiny.

EcoHealth's May 2016 progress report suggested to NIAID that the research "could be gain-of-function and subject to the funding pause," but the nonprofit convinced the agency its study of "bat MERS-like CoVs" was "highly unlikely" to have "pathogenic potential." 

After the P3CO framework took effect, "NIAID staff internally noted a reference to possible" ePPP in EcoHealth's 2020 grant application and asked for more information. It only took a week for EcoHealth to again convince the agency nothing was amiss, though NIAID approved the award with a condition that it "immediately stop work on all experiments" if any "result[ed] in specific outcomes."

The IG was troubled that NIH couldn't get "scientific documentation" from EcoHealth to "gain insights into the nature of the experiments that were performed" because WIV refused to turn it over.

Empower Oversight, founded by former Senate Judiciary Committee investigator Jason Foster, said this calls into question NIH's claim that "it did not believe that either experiment associated with the enhanced growth is associated with the COVID-19 pandemic."

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