A committee formed to evaluate research projects involving pathogens that could cause pandemics hasn't worked during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Epoch Times has learned.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH), created the panel.
The Epoch Times asked the HHS records office for any projects the panel has reviewed since Jan. 1, 2020, determinations for each project reviewed since then, and details, such as transcripts, of all meetings held.
The HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) searched and found no records responsive to the request, according to the records office.
When asked what that meant, Ruhma Sufian, another records officer, responded in an email that "because the HHS P3CO Review Committee has not met within the search frame you gave ... ASPR responded with no records."
"We are troubled that the P3CO Review Committee may have been sidelined and isolated from reviewing any research proposals," Jack Heretik, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been investigating the HHS review process, told The Epoch Times via email.
How It WorksThe P3CO panel can't review projects on its own accord. The funding agency must refer proposals to the panel.
The HHS defines PPP as a pathogen that's "likely highly transmissible and likely capable of wide and uncontrollable spread in human populations" and "likely highly virulent and likely to cause significant morbidity and/or mortality in humans."
The HHS excludes naturally occurring pathogens in circulation in nature, or recovered from nature, from the enhanced PPP definition. It also excludes activities associated with vaccines and surveillance activities such as sequencing.
Call for New SystemDavid Christian Hassell, an HHS official who has said he chairs the committee, said the group is "robust" and "tough."
"This isn't some rubber-stamp group," he said during a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity meeting in 2020, adding, "It's a very critical group. It's a tough group to get through."
But the fact that only three projects have been reviewed shows the system is failing and needs changing, according to some experts.
Ebright and Dr. Steven Quay, CEO of Atossa Therapeutics, urged lawmakers to quickly put a different system in place.
They cited the dearth of reviews in recent years.
The NIH and its parent agency never responded to requests for comment on the recommendations.
Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Dr. Tom Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, previously urged the government to be more transparent with the system.
"To that end, the HHS review should make public who participates in the review, as well as the basis of the decision that the research is acceptable to fund, including the U.S. government’s (USG’s) calculation of the potential benefits and risks of the proposed enhanced PPP research."
SecrecyNone of the members of the P3CO committee are known to the public, a system that critics say sets up issues such as conflicts of interest.
"American taxpayers deserve to know the committee’s composition, like how many reviewers are employed by HHS, how many are biothreat and national security experts, and how opinions are weighted," Marshall said.
Hassell said possible harassment was a reason for not naming the committee members.
"Names get out, you become subject to a number of vulnerabilities," Hassell said during the 2020 meeting.
"As much as it would be good to publicize the individual names, which has been suggested, if that chills anyone being willing to serve on that committee, that will be detrimental because we do manage to get good people on that committee that give of their time to work on this thing."
All members are government workers, Hassell said at the time. He said some are from outside HHS, including from the U.S. military. Hassell told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the members include NIH employees. One works for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci. The NIAID worker co-authored articles with an investigator who was engaged in research proposals that could have been reviewed by the P3CO committee, according to Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), and Morgan Griffith (R-Va.).
Dr. Francis Collins said in a statement in 2019 that the pre-funding reviews done by the committee aren't public "to allow for candid critique and discussion of individual proposals." He noted that information about projects funded by the NIH is publicly available, once the awards are given.