US Group May Have Double-Billed Government for Research in China: Investigators

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber is a senior reporter for The Epoch Times based in Maryland. He covers U.S. and world news.
March 16, 2023Updated: March 16, 2023

The U.S.-based group that funneled taxpayer money to the laboratory in Wuhan, China, where the first COVID-19 cases were detected, may have double-billed the U.S. government, an investigative team has found.

A team led by Diane Cutler, a former federal investigator, uncovered evidence of potential double billing by the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York organization that funneled money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The evidence was provided to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Inspector General, according to Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who hired Cutler.

“The information we provided to the USAID indicates our concerns backed with documentary evidence of potentially double billing,” Marshall told The Epoch Times via email.

Cutler told CBS, which first reported the concerns, that there are signs that EcoHealth Alliance billed the government twice for items such as medical supplies and salaries.

“What I found so far is evidence that points to double billing, potential theft of government funds,” she said. “It is concerning, especially since it involves dangerous pathogens and risky research.”

USAID, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the USAID inspector general didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“We look forward to a complete and thorough review by USAID and other federal agencies on USAID’s and NIH’s work and funding for research in China,” Marshall said.

USAID granted EcoHealth Alliance $8.6 million in 2021, following a $2.5 million grant that ended in 2019, for research in China. EcoHealth also received millions more as a subrecipient of another grant.

NIH has awarded approximately $8.2 million to EcoHealth since fiscal year 2018, including $1.2 million for bat coronavirus research in China. NIH cut off funds to the Wuhan lab after a failure to provide key information but has allowed EcoHealth to remediate its own problems and gave the organization a fresh award of $2.7 million in 2022.

The NIH failed to monitor the funding awards to EcoHealth and couldn’t fully understand the research being done with the money, a watchdog reported in January.

The investigation led by Cutler is into the origins of COVID-19 and includes U.S. grants to China, Marshall’s office said. Marshall previously urged USAID to suspend all awards to EcoHealth and investigate the group’s oversight of foreign projects, but USAID hadn’t done so.

EcoHealth Denies Accusations

EcoHealth said it hasn’t double-billed the government.

“USAID and NIH supported two different projects that are complementary, but distinct, and do not involve duplication of effort,” it said in a statement.

“When a proposal is flagged for funding by a US government agency, there is an interagency review prior to the award being made, to make sure that there is no duplication of effort. We were told by agency staff that these reviews had occurred for these two lines of funding and that they concluded there was no duplication of effort.”

In response to the denial, Marshall said that pending the review by U.S. authorities, EcoHealth should provide documents to support its position.

“EcoHealth should have no problem with showing the American public where and how they spent taxpayer’s money,” he said.

Reports Coming

EcoHealth also said that its projects will be outlined in an upcoming report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has been analyzing U.S. funding of research in China.

A GAO spokesman confirmed to The Epoch Times that the agency is working on examining federal funding for research to entities in China.

A report on the work should be issued in the spring, the spokesman said.

“We can’t discuss what we are finding until the report is completed and released,” he said.

GAO is also planning to release a report first, likely in early April, on funding to Chinese entities.

“That one looks at the amount, type, and purpose of funding obligated by U.S. agencies through assistance and contract awards to entities located in China from fiscal years 2017 through 2021,” the spokesman said.

Gain-of-Function Research

EcoHealth took issue with describing its work as risky in its new statement. It said its research on coronaviruses concerned bat viruses that haven’t “been shown to infect people.” The group also said the work was “not risky.”

At least one of the government awards to EcoHealth funded gain-of-function research, a type of research that boosts a feature of a virus such as its transmissibility, according to records the NIH released in 2021. Many experts say the work is dangerous because of the potential for the viruses to be released, accidentally or intentionally.

Gain-of-function research can lead to pathogens that are “potential weapons of mass destruction,” Richard Ebright, told a congressional panel in 2022. “Inexpensive, accessible, easily distributed weapons of mass destruction.”

The framework for oversight of risky projects funded by the NIH could be updated soon after no projects were reviewed during the COVID-19 pandemic.