A group of Republican senators urged the federal government to halt funding to all ongoing and new gain-of-function research, which they say may have contributed to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These experiments pose extreme threats to public health if the altered pathogens are accidentally or deliberately released,” the senators wrote in a letter (pdf) dated Nov. 22 addressed to Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
“[W]e ask for the moratorium to include studies that enhance the virulence or transmissibility of any pathogen to produce an ePPP [enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential] and studies that confer efficient human transmissibility on a pathogen of even modest virulence,” the five Republican senators wrote.
In 2014, the administration under President Barack Obama issued a moratorium on gain-of-function research. “These studies, however, also entail biosafety and biosecurity risks, which need to be understood better,” Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement at that time.
However, in 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) lifted the funding pause on gain-of-function experiments involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses.
A new pause of viral gain-of-function research (GOF) and dual use research of concern (DURC) studies is necessary due to the “current lack of research oversight, clear guidelines, and the potential risks of outbreaks from laboratory accidents,” read the letter, which was first reported by Fox News.
“Hundreds of laboratory accidents reported to NIH, previously concealed from the public, have been revealed in thousands of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests,” they wrote.
“An intrinsic threat that powerful ePPP viruses can escape from high-containment, high-security laboratories and spark an outbreak with much greater lethality than the world just experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic is plausible.”
The letter’s signers include Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Boston University Research
In the letter, the senators called on NIH to properly enforce the Stevens Amendment, a federal law that requires research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to publicly disclose specific grant costs.
They cited experiments at Boston University that are under scrutiny over the potential risk. A preprint paper released last month showed researchers at the university had created a new strain of COVID-19 by combining the Omicron variant’s spike protein and the original Wuhan strain of the COVID-19 variant. Dubbed Omicron-S, the lab-made hybrid killed 80 percent of mice infected with it.
While the researchers acknowledged four grants from the NIH and its sub-agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the project appeared to surprise officials at the agencies. NIH told news outlets it’s now examining whether the scientists violated the terms of the grant policy or if the grant required review under the Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens (P3CO) framework, which is meant to guide funding decisions on risky research.
Boston University, however, said it didn’t have an obligation to disclose this research, given it “fulfilled all regulatory obligations and protocols” and that “there was no gain of function with this research,” according to an Oct. 18 statement. It added the grant funds were “used to help develop the tools and platforms that were used in this research,” not this study directly.
“Speculation and concern about Boston University’s compliance with the P3CO guidelines could have been thwarted if Boston University had complied with the Stevens Amendment requirements to disclose the percentage and dollar amounts of project costs directly funded by NIH grants,” the senators wrote in the letter.
The Republican lawmakers said, “it is critically important for the OSTP to immediately institute increased protections for the public from these potentially lethal pathogens.
“The OSTP can implement safeguards today to prevent the possibility of an American-based viral outbreak by issuing a new government-wide moratorium on GOF/DURC studies involving enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential.”
Wuhan Lab Funding Controversy
The senators also questioned millions of federal dollars that flowed into a high-level laboratory in China for risky research through a New York-based nonprofit.
“We are also deeply concerned about NIH’s failure to fully respond to Congressional oversight inquiries into the bat coronavirus research that was offshored before the COVID-19 pandemic through a non-profit organization, EcoHealth Alliance (EcoHealth), to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China when such research was restricted by the OSTP moratorium,” read the letter.
Starting in 2014, the EcoHealth Alliance was granted $3.7 million to study bat-related coronaviruses. It directed some of the money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located near where the first COVID-19 cases were reported in late 2019.
The NIH suspended the subgrants in 2020 over concerns the grantees weren’t complying with the grant terms, though it allowed the agency to continue to receive funds through other awards.
“The American people are still in the dark about the origins of COVID-19 and the federal government has used taxpayer money to fund and sponsor high risk research activity,” Sen. Grassley said in a statement accompanying the letter. “The taxpayers are entitled to know exactly what’s being done with their money and that the government has implemented robust oversight mechanisms. Until that time, there should be a moratorium on this type of research.”
The Epoch Times has contacted the OSTP, NIH, and EcoHealth Alliance for comment.
Eva Fu contributed to this report.