House Republicans have begun the first congressional inquiry into the Department of Health and Human Services' apparent failure to review research grants of American taxpayer dollars that funded the bat coronavirus research at a lab in Wuhan, China.
House Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher on Wednesday sent a letter to HHS senior science adviser David Hassell demanding explanations for why the agency did not review a $600,000 annual five-year grant that was given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology between 2014 and 2019.
The Federalist was the first to report the new investigation.
The letter raises concerns over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly whether American taxpayers funded "gain of function" research at the Wuhan lab at a time when the federal government had issued a moratorium on such research. Gain of function research involves deliberately manipulating pathogens to make them more transmissible by humans to study ways in which naturally occurring diseases could evolve to threaten us.
With scientists and the media increasingly open to the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was leaked from the Wuhan lab, the lawmakers want to know why funding for research abroad that may have had a role in the outbreak of the pandemic was not reviewed before it was approved.
"There is mounting evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic may have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology with research on bat coronaviruses partially funded by EcoHealth's grant," the lawmakers wrote, citing a Wall Street Journal report that detailed how three researchers at the Wuhan lab were hospitalized in November 2019 "with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illness."
They observed that the timing of these illnesses matches scientific estimates for when SARS-CoV-2 began spreading in Wuhan and that the Wall Street Journal's reporting contradicts the Chinese Communist Party's claim that the first COVID-19 illness was reported on Dec. 8 that year.
"The Trump Administration was rightly concerned enough about the EcoHealth grants that it directed the NIH to terminate funding in April 2020," the Republicans said. "But questions still remain about how the U.S. government could use taxpayer dollars to fund research on dangerous pathogens at the Chinese lab with known safety deficiencies."
The federal government issued a moratorium on funding gain of function research in October 2014. In January 2017, before President Donald Trump was sworn into office, the Obama administration partially lifted the freeze and ordered U.S. agencies to establish review boards to evaluate funding proposals before approving gain of function research.
HHS created the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight, or P3CO, review committee to handle the agency's review process.
Between 2014 and 2019, the U.S. nonprofit organization EcoHealth Alliance received $600,000 in taxpayer funds from the National Institutes of Health as subgrants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — led by Dr. Anthony Fauci — and diverted those funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses from Chinese bats.
The Daily Caller reported in April that the P3CO review committee established by HHS did not review the grants to the Wuhan lab.
What this could mean is that gain of function research was funded by the U.S. in violation of the law, but there is disagreement among scientists on whether the research conducted on coronaviruses at the Wuhan lab was gain of function. Under Fauci's leadership, NIAID determined the research in the grant was not gain of function "because it did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied," an NIH spokesperson told the Daily Caller.
In sworn congressional testimony, Fauci claimed the research conducted in Wuhan was not gain of function.
Jordan and Gallagher cite examples of credentialed scientists and academic experts who disagree with Fauci's determination. They request that Hassell answer questions on HHS' failure to review the decision to fund research in Wuhan and inquire about the scope of the board's review powers, asking if it is too limited in Hassell's opinion.
On Wednesday, BuzzFeed News published a massive trove of Dr. Fauci's emails obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. Emails from February 2020 reported by the Washington Examiner reveal that at the onset of the pandemic, Fauci was aware of potential controversy regarding possible gain of function research at the Wuhan lab.
In an email dated Feb. 1, 2020, Fauci forwarded an an attachment labeled "Baric, Shi et al - Nature medicine - SARS Gain of function.pdf" with the subject line, "IMPORTANT" to NIH Principal Deputy Director Hugh Auchincloss.
"Hugh: It is essential that we speak this AM. Keep your cell phone on. I have a conference call at 7:45 AM with [Health and Human Services Secretary Alex] Azar. It likely will be over at 8:45 AM. Read this paper as well as the e-mail that I will forward to you now. You will have tasks today that must be done," Fauci urgently wrote.
In reply, Auchincloss wrote, "The paper you sent me says the experiments were performed before the gain of function pause but have since been reviewed and approved by NIH. Not sure what that means since Emily is sure that no Coronavirus work [has] gone through the P3 framework."
The Examiner suggests "Emily" may refer to Emily Erbelding, director of the NIH's division of microbiology and infectious diseases, who is named in several other emails.
"She will try to determine if we have any distant ties to this work abroad," Auchincloss continued.
"OK. Stay tuned," Fauci replied.