The U.S. Department of Health watchdog announced an audit investigation of National Institutes of Health (NIH) program funding over the past several years, which may involve a related collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virus Research in China. Some experts believe the review could help the new coronavirus traceability investigation by looking for clues from information about the collaboration with the Wuhan lab. But some analysts say the review may be more about increased scrutiny and oversight of federally funded programs.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General released its latest work plan this week, saying it will review whether NIH and grantees are complying with federal regulations in their oversight and use of federal funds. The Department of Health inspector general said about 80 percent of NIH funds are used to support research projects, including research at foreign institutions, and the department previously identified potential risks in NIH’s oversight of foreign project funding.
Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman for the Health Department’s Office of Inspector General, told Voice of America in an email, “The potential lack of compliance and oversight of NIH funding has been a concern to us for some time. We believe this is a high-level priority that needs attention and have therefore decided to conduct an audit.”
She said, “We will examine how NIH oversees funded programs and how grantees and subgrantees use and manage federal funds between 2014 and 2021.”
The federal review comes at a time of renewed concern about laboratory leaks of new coronaviruses and the Wuhan Institute of Virus Research, and the link between NIH and coronavirus research conducted by the institute is under scrutiny. Alliance), had provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in research funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virus Research for bat coronavirus research.
Asked if the audit involved funds given to the Wuhan Virus Institute, Williams would not comment. She said, “We do not normally provide details on the status of audits until we release our final report. Therefore, we have no further information to provide at this time.”
Public information from NIH shows that from 2014 to 2019, the NIH provided about $3.7 million to the EcoHealth Alliance to conduct a study called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” ( Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.
The project involves collecting coronaviruses from bats inhabiting China and studying the potential risk of transmission of these viruses to humans. The Wuhan Institute of Virus Research is a sub-funder of the project.
Last April, the NIH terminated the research project. According to U.S. media reports, five days before the project’s termination, the NIH associate director of extramural research programs had written to the EcoHealth Alliance saying that the NIH sought to suspend the Wuhan Institute for Virus Research’s participation in the federal project out of concern about allegations that the new coronavirus outbreak may have originated from a laboratory leak.
The study also raised renewed concerns after claims that the new coronavirus may have originated in a laboratory came back into focus.
In March, Senator Joni Ernst, a federal Republican from Ohio, sent a letter to the Department of Health’s Office of Inspector General urging the inspector general to investigate the funding program for the EcoHealth Alliance. in February, more than two dozen Republican House members had also asked the Department of Health inspector general to investigate concerns about U.S. taxpayer money funding the Wuhan lab.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH-affiliated National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified at a congressional hearing in May that about $800,000 of the EcoHealth Alliance’s five-year grant program was pre-allocated to a collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virus Research, which paid out about $600,000. He said it was “a limited collaboration with very respected Chinese scientists who are world-class experts in coronaviruses.”
Some members of Congress, particularly Republicans, believe that NIH funds are being used by the Wuhan Institute for Virus Research for “gain-of-function” experiments. The purpose of such experiments is to enhance the ability of viruses to infect human and animal cells in order to better understand the potential risks of these viruses and how those risks can be controlled.
During the hearing, Fauci denied that NIH funded Wuhan’s “gain-of-function” experiments. But when Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, asked Fauci how he could be sure that Wuhan scientists would not use the funds for “gain-of-function” research, Fauci also acknowledged that “you never know. (You never know), but added that he believed the Chinese researchers were “trustworthy.
The concern comes from several papers published by Zhengli Shi and colleagues at the Wuhan Institute of Virus Research, who are responsible for coronavirus research. In a 2017 paper, for example, Shi and colleagues created new chimeric (hybrid) viruses by mixing parts of several wild bat coronaviruses to study the ability of these viruses to infect and replicate in human cells. The paper includes project funding from the NIH and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as noted in the funding sources section.
Zhengli Shi told the New York Times that her work was not a “gain-of-function” experiment, and that her lab has never done or collaborated on such research.
She has also consistently refuted claims that the new coronavirus was leaked from her lab. She told Scientific America last year that she had compared the genetic sequences of coronavirus samples collected in her lab with those of the new coronavirus and found no matches.
New coronavirus traceability
There is no definitive answer to the origin of the new coronavirus. The World Health Organization released a joint report with China in March on the traceability of the new coronavirus, saying that it was possible that the virus was transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that the possibility of a laboratory leak was considered “highly unlikely.
In early May, 18 leading scientists published an open letter in the journal Science calling for an investigation into all possibilities, including the possibility that the virus could have leaked from a laboratory.
The Wall Street Journal late last month cited a previously undisclosed U.S. government tip that three staff members at the Wuhan Institute of Virus Research, had developed symptoms similar to those of the new coronavirus and required hospitalization in November 2019.
Days later, President Biden asked the U.S. intelligence community to “redouble its efforts” to find out within 90 days whether the new coronavirus originated from human contact with infected animals or from a laboratory accident.
This is also the backdrop for an audit of NIH-funded programs by the U.S. Department of Health’s Office of Inspector General. The audit report is expected to be released in 2022, the Office of Inspector General’s work plan says.
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Rutgers University, believes that while the investigation and forensics for the traceability of the new coronavirus will require the cooperation of the Chinese government, the Wuhan Institute of Virus research on bat coronavirus was all conducted in collaboration with the Ecological Health Alliance, and by launching an investigation into the funding of this collaborative project, the U.S. could The U.S. could find some evidence and clues by investigating the funding of this collaborative project.
He believes that a review of NIH-funded programs by the U.S. Department of Health’s Office of Inspector General is an important first step.
The EcoHealth Alliance and NIH have electronic and paper documents on their hard drives and in their application files that could be directly related to the source of SARS-CoV-2 (New Coronavirus),” he told Voice of America. Directly relevant documents that exist at the EcoHealth Alliance and/or NIH include: grant project applications, grant project progress reports, final reports, and papers; scientific, safety, and risk-benefit reviews; and raw data, analytical data, and correspondence.”
Ebright also noted that “directly relevant evidence may include that, unlike the Wuhan Institute of Virus claims, the Institute handled SARS-CoV-2 (new coronavirus) or a virus closer to SARS-CoV-2 than the virus they released; or that the Wuhan Institute of Virus conducted relevant experiments that may have resulted in SARS-CoV-2 (new coronavirus) or a virus closer to SARS-CoV-2 than the virus they released; or that the Wuhan Institute of Virus conducted relevant experiments that may have resulted in SARS-CoV-2 2 (new coronavirus) or the construction of a virus closer to SARS-CoV-2 than the virus they released; or documented evidence of laboratory security violations from August to November 2019.”
He also said, however, that a review of the NIH program is not a substitute for a congressional investigation. He argued that Congress, which has the power to issue subpoenas and hold hearings, still needs to initiate relevant investigations.
For his part, Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar in health security at Johns Hopkins University, argues that a review of NIH-funded programs may not provide much more information about the origins of the new coronavirus.
He told Voice of America via email, “This review is likely in response to the fact that research funded by NIH with taxpayer dollars may not be adequately regulated by NIH in terms of biosafety and gain-of-function restrictions. I don’t think a lot of information will come out of this review other than that it will take a more critical look at future funded projects.”
He argues that it is critical that the new coronavirus be traced back to its source, but that many aspects of this work still require “the Chinese government to stop blocking confusion.”
Beijing has consistently denied that the new coronavirus originated from a lab leak and said the U.S. is using the virus traceability issue for “political hype.