Dr. Anthony Fauci’s federal science agency and EcoHealth Alliance, which took a U.S. grant for bat virus research and paid part of it to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, made serious missteps, government investigators said Tuesday.
EcoHealth Alliance did not properly disclose its subgrant recipients—which included the Chinese lab which may have been the origin of COVID—and was two years late in filing a report that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded may have revealed “gain of function,” or experiments which make a virus more dangerous to humans, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inspector General said in a 72-page report. Fauci headed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which oversaw the grant and is part of NIH.
“Our audit found that NIH’s own evaluation of the Year 5 progress report concluded that the research was of a type that should have been reported immediately to NIH,” it said. The Year 5 report was filed two years late, but the IG said NIH “did not effectively monitor or take timely action” despite knowing about potential risks.
“This oversight failure is particularly concerning because NIH had previously raised concerns with EcoHealth about the nature of the research being performed. Once NIH received and reviewed the late progress report, NIH concluded the research resulted in a virus with enhanced growth,” it said.
EcoHealth Alliance, for its part, said that NIH had never followed up to ask for the late report or information about its subgrantees, and that it seemed to be on good terms with the agency given that it continued to give it funding. After the coronavirus pandemic, NIH terminated EcoHealth’s grant, and EcoHealth successfully appealed the termination—though NIH nonetheless “suspended” it.
Following the coronavirus pandemic, NIH asked EcoHealth for additional information out of Wuhan, but the lab refused to give it to EcoHealth.
EcoHealth’s president, Peter Daszak, was part of the World Health Organization-China team that dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as “extremely unlikely”—despite having been involved in bat coronavirus projects at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
A former vice president of EcoHealth Alliance, Dr. Andrew Huff, wrote a book titled “The Truth About Wuhan” that claimed “EcoHealth Alliance and foreign laboratories did not have the adequate control measures in place for ensuring proper biosafety, biosecurity, and risk management, ultimately resulting in the lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
In 2014, NIAID awarded a $3.7 million grant to EcoHealth for “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” The government banned gain-of-function research later that year.
EcoHealth paid $600,000 to WIV and $200,000 to the Wuhan University School of Public Health. Grantees are responsible for their subgrantees under federal regulations, the report said.
“EcoHealth officials met with WIV staff in person on at least 20 occasions between June 2014 and December 2019 and traveled to Wuhan, China, to meet with individuals from WIV at least annually during that time to discuss the research conducted under its subaward. EcoHealth staff told OIG that they engaged in frequent phone calls and email exchanges with WIV staff throughout,” auditors said.
In 2016, NIAID told EcoHealth that it “had determined that the research could be gain-of-function and subject to the funding pause on certain gain-of-function research,” and asked for information from EcoHealth. The group replied that “it was highly unlikely that this work would have any pathogenic potential,” but that “should any of these recombinants show evidence of enhanced virus growth greater than certain specified benchmarks involving log growth increases, or grow more efficiently in human airway epithelial cells, EcoHealth would immediately: (1) stop all experiments with the mutant [and] (2) inform the NIAID.”
The inspector general did not weigh in on whether NIAID’s determination that EcoHealth’s work did not constitute gain-of-function was accurate, saying it did not have the scientific expertise, but noted that staff should “err on the side of inclusion when determining whether to refer research that may involve [gain-of-function] for further review.”
In 2017, the ban was partially lifted to allow gain-of-function research in limited circumstances approved by a special HHS committee. In 2018, NIH determined that that approval was not necessary for EcoHealth’s work, but it appeared a close enough call that it inserted a special provision for its five-year report that “should experiments proposed in this award result in a virus with enhanced growth by more than certain specified benchmarks involving log growth increases, EcoHealth must notify NIAID immediately.”
That five-year report was due September 2019, a few months before the global pandemic began. “However, not until after NIH requested the progress report in July 2021 did EcoHealth submit it on August 3, 2021, nearly 2 years late,” auditors said.
When NIH finally saw the report, it “believed there was evidence that the research conducted by EcoHealth’s subrecipient WIV during Year 5 resulted in enhanced growth by more than one log, thus triggering the special term and condition to immediately notify NIAID and potentially requiring the research to undergo review under the HHS P3CO Framework.”
In a response to the IG, EcoHealth quibbled about what metric should be used, and also said that similar findings were in its Year 4 report, so the agency should have known. NIH said describing the results of experiments in scheduled reports is not the same as “immediately notifying” it.
Auditors found that EcoHealth did not properly report information about its subgrantees.
“Until NIH informed EcoHealth in July 2020 that it was not in compliance with these reporting requirements for its subawards, EcoHealth did not report any of its subawards on the FSRS website according to Federal requirements,” they wrote. “EcoHealth had not complied with the subaward reporting
requirement for at least 5 years. Not reporting required subaward information limits NIH and the general public’s visibility into, and transparency of, how these grant funds were used.”
That’s something NIH should have detected, auditors wrote: “we believe NIH’s monitoring of EcoHealth’s grants should have revealed EcoHealth’s failure to comply with the subaward disclosure requirement as early as 2016.”
Ironically, EcoHealth said it has been unable to travel to supervise its subrecipients recently because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The report also said that EcoHealth should “refund to the Federal Government $89,171 in unallowable costs” including for paying bonuses and salaries in excess of a $180,000 cap. EcoHealth said it has repaid that money, but contended that NIH still owes it a larger amount in other unreimbursed spending.
Even after the pandemic, and while its five-year report remained unfiled, NIH gave more grants to EcoHealth—including special conditions that were the result of NIH’s awareness of EcoHealth’s lack of disclosure about WIV. In June 2020, it awarded EcoHealth another $3 million for viruses in Asia, and in September 2020, $1.1 million for human outbreaks of bat viruses.
After the five-year report that NIH believed may have shown gain-of-function, it yet again gave the group another award. Shortly before Fauci stepped down from four decades leading NIAID, EcoHealth received another $3.3 million for a grant running through 2027.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) asked the IG to examine the funding in March 2021. On Tuesday after the release of the IG report, she introduced a bill to prohibit government funding to EcoHealth. Ernst’s office said that since 2008, EcoHealth has collected nearly $80 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars, including $46 million from the Department of Health, $16.5 million from HHS, and $11.2 from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“The Biden administration is funding EcoHealth to search for risky viruses in places all across the globe, except where they might actually find them: in their own lab experiments,” Ernst said in a statement Tuesday. “While NIH certainly shares in the blame, EcoHealth Alliance is ultimately at fault for failing to tell the world what was really going on at China’s Wuhan Institute. They are guilty of either complacency or a cover-up… We can’t afford any more of EcoHealth’s ‘prevention’ efforts. That’s why we must permanently ban them from receiving taxpayer dollars ever again.”
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