Government Health Officials Misled About Risky Mpox Research, House Panel Finds

Government officials, while acknowledging they previously offered false information, maintain the experiment was never conducted.
Government Health Officials Misled About Risky Mpox Research, House Panel Finds
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington in a file image. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

Government officials falsely said an experiment that would place genes from one mpox (monkeypox) strain into another strain was never proposed or approved, according to an investigation from a U.S. House of Representatives panel.

Dr. Bernard Moss, a longtime scientist with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told a magazine in 2022 that he planned to take genes from the highly virulent clade 1 mpox and place them into a less virulent but more transmissible strain as part of ongoing testing in mice and other small animals.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee requested more information from the government, expressing concern with the proposal.

Dr. Moss, other NIAID officials, and officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH’s parent agency, repeatedly told members that the experiment was never formally proposed or approved.

“This study has not been formally proposed, and NIAID has no plans to move forward with this research,” Melanie Egorin, the department’s assistant secretary for legislation, said in one letter dated April 26, 2023.

Dr. Moss said in prepared remarks to the committee in a closed-door meeting later that year that he was focused on transferring genes from clade II, the less virulent strain, into clade I and had not performed any experiments swapping genes from clade I into clade II.

“I have not planned or proposed such experiments for approval since we have not completed the current experiments and therefore do not yet know which genes might be best to transfer,” he said.

But members found, after threatening subpoenas, that the NIH’s Institutional Biosafety Committee in 2015 reviewed a proposal from Dr. Moss for the experiment and approved it. The members reviewed the documents in camera because government officials said making the records public could carry biosafety risk, the committee said in an interim report published on June 11 detailing its investigation.

The approval for the experiment was in place until May 2023, when it was revoked by the NIH about seven months after the committee started expressing concern.

The work was funded under a grant on which Dr. Moss is listed as the principal investigator, according to the panel. The publicly available information on the grant does not describe the experiment.

Ms. Egorin later reversed her previous stance, writing recently in a follow-up letter released by the panel that “research involving bidirectional transfer of genes between clades I and II of the MPXV was considered and approved.” MPXV is an acronym for the monkeypox virus, or mpox.

GOP panel members said the pattern of obstruction and misrepresentation displayed by government officials means the officials either deliberately misled members or were fed false information themselves by other government employees. Because NIAID personnel have firsthand knowledge of the experiment and related issues, officials likely relied on NIAID staff and the primary responsibility for misleading the panel “most likely lies within NIAID,” the members said.

Spokespersons for the NIAID, the NIH, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not return requests for comment.

Dr. Steven Holland, director of the Division of Intramural Research at the NIAID, had said in prepared remarks in 2023 in the closed-door meeting with legislators that Dr. Moss “has not at any point pursued transferring genes from the more virulent strain (clade I) into the less virulent strain (clade II), nor has he made specific plans to do so.”

Government officials, while acknowledging they previously offered false information, maintain the experiment was never conducted, but have not produced records supporting that claim, according to the report.

“Absent production of sufficient corroborating documentation, it is reasonable for the committee to infer that assertations that the experiment was never conducted are inaccurate in light of HHS’s past misrepresentations that the risky experiment was never formally proposed or approved,” Republicans on the panel said.

Lawmakers said they need additional evidence to be confident the experiment was never carried out.

“In order to start rebuilding trust in our government health agency guidance, agencies like the NIH must be honest and transparent with Congress and the American people. This report demonstrates a disturbing lack of judgment and accountability from HHS, the NIH, and particularly, NIAID. It is unacceptable and demonstrates the clear need for reform,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chairwoman of the committee, said in a joint statement with Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) and Morgan Griffith (R-Va.).

They recommend removing final review and approval for risky experiments from the NIH and NIAID, which already oversee such experiments.

Democrats on the panel declined to comment on the report.

The clade I strain originated in central Africa, while the clade II strain comes from west Africa. The strain circulating in the United States is the latter.

In laboratory experiments, clade I was shown to be 1,000 times more virulent than clade II, according to Dr. Moss. Clade II, on the other hand, is more transmissible.

Dr. Moss, who did not return an inquiry, wrote in 2023 that he’s been experimenting with mpox for more than a decade under biosafety level 3 conditions at a government lab.

“It is fortunate that all cases of mpox outside of Africa have been caused by the less virulent clade II virus,” he wrote, adding later that, “Nevertheless, we should be prepared for the possibility of the more virulent central African clade I virus escaping from Africa in the future.”

Dr. Moss said one goal of the research was to determine why clade I is more virulent, with an eye towards better containing potential outbreaks.