'Potentially criminal': Feds lied about virus research more dangerous than COVID, GOP lawmakers say

HHS, NIH, NIAID misled House Energy and Commerce for 17 months about 2015 approval of monkeypox experiment to insert genes from more deadly "clade" into more infectious one, GOP report says. Science publishers allegedly hookwinked.

Published: June 13, 2024 11:00pm

Already on the hot seat with the House Oversight Committee for allegedly misleading the public about funding gain-of-function research and colluding to suppress the lab-leak theory of COVID-19 origins, federal regulators and science journals now face scrutiny from another set of lawmakers over their claims about research alleged to be even more dangerous.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans released an interim staff report this week alleging multiple agencies "misrepresented and deceived" lawmakers over 17 months by denying that staff proposed research to swap genes between "more lethal" and "more transmissible" lineages of monkeypox, much less that higher-ups approved the experiments.

The Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases slowly relented their obstructions, "almost always to avoid either a transcribed interview or a subpoena," the report says.

An HHS letter March 19 and private documents review by "bipartisan Committee staff" the next day "confirmed what the agencies had been denying for over a year," that NIH's Institutional Biosafety Committee approved a proposal by NIAID "distinguished" pox virologist Bernard Moss and his team for a "bidirectional MPXV approach" between monkeypox clades 1 and 2 in 2015.

This means genes from the more deadly clade (1) – a term meaning a group of viruses that "usually have similar genetic changes" and "a single common ancestor" – would be inserted into the more infectious clade (2). 

Committee Republicans called it "unacceptable and potentially criminal" behavior.

"The committee is looking for an issue where there isn’t one," according to a statement attributed to an HHS spokesperson given to Just the News on Wednesday by NIH public affairs specialist Emily Ritter.

"HHS and its divisions, including NIH, follow strict biosafety measures as our scientists work to better understand and protect the public from infectious diseases – like mpox," the statement reads. "The experiment referenced by the committee was never conducted, which the committee knows. HHS remains committed to ensuring the safety of biomedical research."

Ritter did not respond to a request to answer the committee's allegation that HHS has refused to turn over documents "that support this assertion" that NIAID's Moss didn't go through with the gene transfer from clade 1 to 2.

"NIAID has also failed to offer any explanation of the circumstances and rationale that supposedly led the Moss research team to drop" the experiment following approval, the committee said in a press release Tuesday.

Moss told Science in September 2022 his team already swapped genes from clade 2 into clade 1 to see whether they could make the latter less dangerous and was "planning to try the opposite," which the committee said prompted its interest.

American regulators and politicians at the time appeared to be trying to gin up generalized fear about the African virus. The Biden White House played down the dominant route of transmission – sex between men – and the president called the virus something "everybody" should fear.

Contrary to the relatively mild illnesses, if any, caused by SARS-CoV-2 from the beginning of the COVID pandemic for people not already at high risk from infection, Moss's research determined monkeypox clade 1 "can kill a mouse at levels 1,000 times lower than those needed with clade 2," Science reported then.

Clade 1 "has caused outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo for many decades" while clade 2 "until recently was found only in West Africa and is now causing the global outbreak," according to Science

The publicity around Moss's research spooked outside scientists including Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Director Thomas Inglesby, Science reported a month later in October 2022.

They argued the experiments should undergo federal review through the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight framework, from which NIH controversially exempted the EcoHealth Alliance's bat coronavirus research with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a suspected source of COVID's emergence. 

Under P3CO, "there are legitimate concerns that this experiment could enhance a pathogen with pandemic potential by making the more transmissible mpox clade I more transmissible," the committee report says.

The controversy apparently provoked the feds to run a counter-offensive in medical and science publishing over the next several months.

Science added the clause "and would use a 2003 isolate of the outbreak strain" to the story nine days later, which a "clarification" said referred to clade 2a, from a "prairie dog during a cluster of cases in the United States that did not involve human-to-human spread," not 2b, which was spreading among humans globally.

NIAID did not include that information in a "statement on the planned studies" it initially gave Science, the clarification said.

The committee report said the clarification "did not refute that Dr. Moss had proposed or planned gene transfers from clade I to clade IIa," and noted Moss's team explicitly said the next month in a preprint they "plan to extend" their investigation of "genetic determinants responsible for virulence differences of clade I and IIa viruses … to clade IIb pending institutional approval."

Science reporter Joceyln Kaiser, who wrote the October 2022 story, told Just the News she did not "see any need to correct" it in light of the committee report because she attributed NIAID and "had no reason to doubt the veracity of what NIAID told me." 

It's not clear the NIAID flack gave her incorrect information because the "2015 and 2018 IBC reviews would have been for Clade 2a," which the committee report notes was not identified until 2022, and Moss's preprint "indicates that the Clade 2b experiments had not gone through the IBC yet," Kaiser said. 

The report footnote she cited also says: "It is unclear whether the IBC approval included permission for the Moss team to change Clade II viruses if it wanted to. Majority Committee staff has a pending informational request with NIH on this point."

Referring to the 2018 IBC review, which determined Moss's proposal didn't fall under P3CO, another report footnote quotes the March 19 HHS letter as saying Moss's team conveyed they would "not conduct this experiment without further discussions with the IBC."

The "timing" of the statement "leaves the impression that the Moss research team was worried that review of this part of the experiment would raise concerns with the IBC under the new P3CO framework," only created the prior year, the footnote says.

STAT reporter Helen Branswell tried to make Moss a martyr for science in a lengthy profile a year ago, titled "House GOP inquiry over gain-of-function research targets a scientific giant."

She called his proposal "catnip" to committee Republicans who see it as gain-of-function research – "a gong that, once sounded, reverberates with echoes of an unproven yet oft-repeated allegation" that COVID escaped from the Wuhan lab – while reporting NIAID denied Moss had made a "formal proposal" for the research.

In her own voice, however, Branswell claimed in a social media post that "House Republicans want to interrogate" the 57-year veteran of NIH "for work he did not do."

Her post went further thanks to Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett, who has been criticized for uncritically promoting weak research on the efficacy of masking and the ongoing threat of COVID.

Republicans want to "crucify" Moss "for work he never actually did," which is "why scientists are clamming up, avoiding media," Garrett said in sharing Branswell's post.

STAT didn't respond to Just the News on whether Branswell's story and her social media post require revision in light of the committee report.

Former Senate Finance Committee investigator Paul Thacker, who exposed financial ties between Big Pharma and doctors, called the reports by Kaiser and Branswell "both false" in his newsletter Wednesday.

While the House committee threatened to subpoena NIH last fall if it didn't turn over its communications with Science and its publisher related to the Sept. 15 and Oct. 19, 2022 articles about Moss's research, Thacker faulted lawmakers for not demanding NIH divulge who allegedly misled Branswell.

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