NIH grantee in Wuhan faces questions, deadline for more information on research

Congress focuses on controversial ‘gain of function’ experiments on viruses

Recent revelations complicate White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci’s previous statements that the NIH never funded research projects in Wuhan that gave pathogens new properties with the potential to cause any kind of pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Recent revelations complicate White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci’s previous statements that the NIH never funded research projects in Wuhan that gave pathogens new properties with the potential to cause any kind of pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 22, 2021 at 6:17pm

A U.S. partner of the Wuhan Institute of Virology manipulated a coronavirus to generate up to 10,000 times the viral load, violating provisions of its National Institutes of Health contract that forbade unregulated research that could make a disease significantly more dangerous or transmissible.

The information was revealed this week in a letter from the NIH to House Republicans. NIH said the nonprofit partner, EcoHealth Alliance, must submit any unpublished data to the agency by Monday to come back into compliance with its NIH grant. Any new documents could shed further light on the controversial nonprofit’s research.

The EcoHealth project ran afoul of NIH terms because it experimented with changing the spike protein of a bat coronavirus identified by researchers as “poised for human emergence” and tested how well it infected human airway cells, according to the letter released by House Oversight and Reform ranking member James R. Comer, R-Ky., late Wednesday. The committee also released a long overdue progress report detailing the group’s work from 2018 to 2019. EcoHealth, a New York-based intermediary between the NIH and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, did not submit it to NIH until August.

The NIH’s letter states that EcoHealth violated a provision in its contract requiring a report to government funders should one of the viruses in its experiment produce “a one log increase in growth.” In other words, EcoHealth was not supposed to enhance a virus’s ability to grow by a factor of 10 without notifying NIH.

EcoHealth, working with the Wuhan lab, created novel coronaviruses that enhanced viral growth by 1,000-fold to 10,000-fold, orders of magnitude greater than the limit that should have triggered further NIH review, according to agency documents made public in recent weeks. The increase in viral load, which is closely tied to transmissibility, also resulted in more severe disease in mice in some cases.

NIH as well as independent virologists emphasize that the virus EcoHealth was working on, which was named WIV-1 after the Wuhan lab, is too genetically dissimilar to be an ancestor of the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19.

“NIH wants to set the record straight on NIH-supported research to understand naturally occurring bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, funded through a subaward from NIH grantee EcoHealth Alliance,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement released about an hour before the House committee made the new documents public. “Analysis of published genomic data and other documents from the grantee demonstrate that the naturally occurring bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant are genetically far distant from SARS-CoV-2 and could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Any claims to the contrary are demonstrably false.”

A scientific analysis by NIH suggests that “viruses studied under the EcoHealth Alliance grant are very far distant from SARS-CoV-2.”

Still, the details of the work worry some other scientists and health experts and raise questions about NIH oversight.

“In my view, some of this research on potential pandemic pathogens poses unacceptable risks,” Jesse Bloom, an expert in viral evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said in an email.

The revelations complicate White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci’s previous statements that the NIH never funded research projects in Wuhan that gave pathogens new properties with the potential to cause any kind of pandemic, so-called “gain of function” research.

“It’s critical that the U.S. government develops robust oversight mechanisms for gain-of-function research, including at HHS and other parts of the interagency,” said Jaime Yassif, senior fellow for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which advocates for reducing global risks.

Questions about EcoHealth’s work

“I would have flagged this project,” said Yassif. “Looking at the experiment of concern that’s highlighted in the letter, it appears to me as gain-of-function research, even before the ‘one log’ requirement.”

Lawrence Tabak, NIH’s principal deputy director, said in the letter to Comer that the potential for higher transmissibility was “unexpected” in the EcoHealth experiment in Wuhan.

“As sometimes occurs in science, this was an unexpected result of the research, as opposed to something that researchers set out to do,” Tabak wrote.

But one of the three aims EcoHealth outlined in the newly released progress report was to test “emergence potential” of various bat coronaviruses — in other words, how likely they would be to cross over to infect humans and ignite a pandemic.

The progress report released by the Oversight Committee also described EcoHealth Alliance’s work on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a more deadly disease than COVID-19 that kills as many as 35 percent of people who catch it.

The progress report describes testing the “emergence potential” of MERS-related coronaviruses in the same way it tested the SARS-related coronaviruses. It’s unknown how much the transmissibility of those MERS viruses might have been changed.

EcoHealth Alliance has come under scrutiny for its work with the Wuhan lab collecting, cataloging and manipulating dangerous coronaviruses with the goal of detecting emerging pandemics.

EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak played a leading role in casting the hypothesis that COVID-19 may have originated from scientific research as a fringe conspiracy theory. He helped write a highly influential editorial in The Lancet and was part of the team that produced the World Health Organization’s compromised investigation into the pandemic earlier this year.

President Joe Biden asked U.S. intelligence agencies who were split about the pandemic’s origins in May to investigate more, but the agencies produced a report in August that was still inconclusive.

Some experts say Daszak has not disclosed enough about the group’s research.

NIH released a tranche of documents about EcoHealth under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by The Intercept in September, but the online news site noted that the 2018 to 2019 progress report was missing, until NIH later received it and gave it to House Republicans.

“The EcoHealth progress reports to which the NIH letter refers were due over two years ago as part of standard grant reporting, so it’s unclear why they are only coming to light now,” said Bloom.

Even vocal critics of the “lab leak theory” that the pandemic was spurred by work at the Wuhan lab have expressed concern.

“Withholding data from the government agency that funds your work with taxpayer dollars does not engender trust. Federal research grants are not an entitlement. Failing to comply with oversight measures put into place largely for safety reasons is inexcusable,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, said in a tweet. “I’m not going to sit idly by while [EcoHealth Alliance’s] inaction allows unqualified grifters and opportunists free reign to disparage my entire profession, ultimately making everyone less safe.”

Daszak did not reply to requests for comment.

Future congressional action

Comer and other Republicans maintain that Fauci and Collins, who is expected to shift away from leading NIH and return to his research this year, misled Congress.

“NIH confirmed that EcoHealth violated the terms of their grant by concealing data on dangerous coronavirus experiments in Wuhan,” Comer said in a statement. “Even worse, NIH Director Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci potentially misled the Committee and the American people about its knowledge of this cover up.”

Independent biosecurity experts previously said NIH’s grants to study WIV-1 did not constitute gain-of-function research based on what was then known because the WIV-1 virus could infect human cells before genetic manipulation. But the NIH letter generates new questions.

“I can tell you right now that we’re producing more inquiries into this matter,” said a Republican Oversight Committee aide who spoke on background in order to preview actions that have not yet been approved.

The aide added it’s unlikely Republicans will get cooperation from Democrats, who are in the majority and would have the power to subpoena records or compel testimony from NIH officials.

The revelations and potential upcoming developments could also jeopardize future federal funding for EcoHealth’s work, which was originally slated to continue until fiscal 2026 before a pause under the Trump and Biden administrations.

Congressional efforts to curtail funding to EcoHealth Alliance included House votes to prohibit Defense Department funding through the fiscal 2022 defense bill and the National Defense Authorization Act. The draft fiscal 2022 Senate Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill does not contain any language targeting gain-of-function research or the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but other bills do.

The House-passed Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill included language to bar federal funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology or gain-of-function research. It was adopted by voice vote during the markup process.

A Senate-passed technology bill included an amendment to ban any federal agency from funding gain-of-function research in China. The amendment was accepted by voice vote. The House has not taken up the bill yet.

Sandhya Raman contributed to this report.