Lawmakers ask NIH Director Francis Collins about the potential origins of Covid-19.
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Did Covid-19 originate in a Chinese laboratory funded in part by a grantee of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases? The world is waiting for an answer, and on Thursday several Republican members of the House and Senate asked Dr. Fauci’s boss to help provide one. A related question is whether the deadly pandemic was the result of “gain-of-function” research, in which scientists genetically engineer deadly viruses which do not exist in nature in order to understand potential future threats.
Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Dr. Rand Paul of Kentucky lead the signers of the new letter to Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. The letter contains various footnotes and relies on both government and media reports to assert the following history:
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2 has remained elusive. Recently, in response to the World Health Organization’s study of SARS-CoV-2’s origins, a group of eighteen scientists published a letter in Science Magazine stating that a leak of the virus from a lab is a “viable” theory and should be thoroughly investigated. Yet, obtaining information about the research on bat coronaviruses conducted at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology has been very difficult. Such information, including if and when gain of function experiments occurred at the lab, is crucial in determining the viability of the laboratory introduction theory. In light of the many unanswered questions regarding the origins of the SARS-CoV-2, we write to seek information regarding the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) 2014 funding pause on gain of function research (also referred to as the moratorium), exceptions NIH may have granted from that pause to allow gain of function research to continue, and the lifting of that pause in 2017.
In October 2014, following several high profile biosafety incidents at labs, as well as public scrutiny of gain of function research studies, the Department of Health and Human Services and NIH instituted a pause on funding research of gain of function experiments “involving influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses.” The U.S. government (USG) noted, though, that “[a]n exception from the research pause may be obtained if the head of the USG funding agency determines that the research is urgently necessary to protect the public health or national security.” This pause did not apply to currently-funded research at the time, but the moratorium did urge “the USG and non-USG funded research community to join in adopting a voluntary pause.”
One of the notable NIH-funded studies that was already underway prior to the funding moratorium was Dr. Ralph Baric’s work on a “lab-made coronavirus related to SARS.” In this 2015 study, researchers reportedly created a chimeric virus “related to SARS [that] can infect human cells.” Dr. Zhengli-Li Shi, “China’s leading expert on bat viruses” from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, contributed to this research. An article noted that NIH allowed this study “to proceed while it was under review by the agency.” Baric reportedly added that “NIH eventually concluded that the work was not so risky as to fall under the [gain of function] moratorium.” It is unclear why NIH apparently concluded that this study was not “risky” enough to fall under the moratorium.
In addition to Baric’s apparent gain of function research in 2015, NIH and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) also reportedly funded similar coronavirus research conducted by EcoHealth Alliance, which subcontracted with Shi. Because of Shi’s research and her connection to the Wuhan lab, Dr. Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist and infectious disease expert, stated, “[i]t is clear that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was systematically constructing novel chimeric coronaviruses and was assessing their ability to infect human cells and human-ACE2-expressing mice.” In fact, Dr. Peter Dasazk, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, spoke about changing coronaviruses in a lab. In an interview Dasazk stated, “Well I think . . . coronaviruses — you can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily.”
In December 2017, NIH lifted the funding pause and established a multi-disciplinary review process, known as the P3CO Framework, to ensure that federally funded gain of function experiments are “conducted responsibly.” It is unclear whether EcoHealth Alliance or any of its subcontractors was granted an exception to the moratorium or whether NIH reviewed those studies in connection with the P3CO Framework.
The lawmakers then ask a series of questions intended to find out exactly what Americans funded and what exactly happened at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has denied being the source of the pandemic, as has Dr. Shi.
The letter also seeks to clarify whether the NIH, in denying responsibility to this point, has adopted a more narrow definition of gain-of-function research than non-government scientists.