CNN's Pamela Brown confronted National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins on Sunday on whether there was an "oversight failure" under his leadership that resulted in U.S. taxpayers funding risky coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Last week, the NIH released documents and sent a letter to a Republican lawmaker confirming that EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. nonprofit that studies emerging diseases, used an award from the agency to fund gain-of-function experiments in Wuhan, China. The letter said that EcoHealth funded an experiment "testing if spike proteins from naturally occurring bat coronaviruses circulating in China were capable of binding to the human ACE2 receptor in a mouse model." The documents released by the NIH revealed the experiment involved cloning MERS-CoV, the virus that caused a deadly outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012, and then engineering the clone by giving it a receptor-binding domain from a bat coronavirus to see if it would be able to enter human cells that were put into mice.
This experiment had the "unexpected result" of making the MERS-based virus more transmissible among the humanized mice, which would apparently meet the NIH's definition of gain-of-function research. And the NIH said in its letter that EcoHealth Alliance violated the terms of its grant by failing to report those results. But Collins and his subordinate, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, have each publicly denied many times that the NIH ever funded gain-of-function research.
Interviewing Collins on Sunday night, Brown asked, given the NIH's admission that EcoHealth Alliance funded research that made a virus more transmissible among human cells, how the agency could claim "the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute."
"You're just now finding out U.S. tax dollars were being used to pay for this risky research in that Wuhan lab two years ago," Brown said. "So the question is how can you know what this money is going toward? What kind of research this is going toward in places like the Wuhan lab if you're just now finding this out from EcoHealth Alliance how the U.S.' taxpayer dollars were being used?"
In answer, Collins acknowledged that "EcoHealth did violate the terms of their grant award" by failing to report the experiment's "unexpected result" in a timely fashion. But then he argued that even if EcoHealth Alliance had reported its results to the NIH, its gain-of-function experiment was not the kind that requires "special high level oversight," and he emphasized this experiment was "in no way connected" to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Yeah, they messed up," he said. "We're going to hold them accountable. They sent us a progress report two years late that they should have sent a while ago, and it had information in it that they should have told us about."
But Brown pressed the issue, noting that the NIH's recognition that EcoHealth violated the terms of its award "does show ... that there was risky research being conducted in that lab with U.S. taxpayer dollars that the NIH was unaware of and is just now finding out."
"So it raises the question of what other risky experiments could be going on with taxpayer funding that you don't know about," she asked. "Does that concern you?"
"It does. I think in this instance, the particular grantee, which is EcoHealth Alliance, failed to follow the terms of their grant award that they should have followed, and they're in some trouble as a result of that," Collins replied.
"I don't think this is indication that there is a broad range of this kind of difficulty going on," he added.
"But isn't this also an oversight failure of the NIH?" Brown then asked. "Because the NIH is responsible for taking taxpayer money and giving these grants. So would you say this is also an oversight failure?"
Collins responded by shifting blame to Congress, stating that the NIH is not permitted by law to have direct oversight of a sub-award like that issued by EcoHealth Alliance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for this gain-of-function experiment.
"That needs to be changed. We are actually interested in asking the Congress to change that," he said.
Brown kept pressing: "Why should Americans trust you and the NIH on the issue of COVID origins when you didn't even know about the programs it was funding with taxpayer dollars in China?"
Collins seemed taken aback by the question. "Well, that's a little too strong, Pam. We did know exactly what the funding was intended to support in terms of the research on these bat coronaviruses, and the vast, vast majority of what they did was exactly what we had given them permission to do," he said.
"In this one instance, they failed to report the results of an experiment that they should have told us about immediately. Frankly, it's not an experiment that we think has a huge impact on any of the work that was done, but they missed the opportunity to be completely responsive as they should have been.
"So please, relax, here. This is not a circumstance where I think you could say there was a major failure that put human lives at risk. It was a mess-up in terms of their being responsive to the requirements they should have followed."
Asked if the NIH will pull funding from EcoHealth Alliance given the organization's failure to comply with the terms of its award, Collins correctly stated that the specific grant that was sub-awarded to the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been suspended since last year. However, he declined to mention that the NIH and NIAID have awarded millions of dollars in new grants to EcoHealth Alliance for other research projects.
The interview concluded with Collins promising to be completely transparent with what happens regarding other unpublished data EcoHealth Alliance must turn over to the NIH.
"We want to be completely transparent about it. The last thing that needs to happen right now is any sense that we're not revealing everything that we know," Collins said.
Although Collins assured CNN viewers he was being "fair and open" with what the NIH knows, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin observed that Collins made many misleading statements in this interview.
For instance, his statement that EcoHealth Alliance's gain-of-function experiment is not the kind that requires "special high level oversight" makes no sense because the NIH said the organization should have reported its "unexpected results."
"The whole point of the NIH letter to Congress was that if EcoHealth HAD reported its research results, it WOULD HAVE triggered the extra, high level oversight," Rogin pointed out on Twitter. "Why is Collins pretending he knows they would have been exempt from that?"
Rogin also observed that while Collins blamed Congress for restricting the NIH's ability to oversee grant sub-awards, the NIH failed to enforce its reporting requirements on EcoHealth Alliance for two years, which is why the agency is just now learning that EcoHealth was noncompliant with the terms of its grant.