In COVID-19 oversight, House Republicans deliver a win for accountability

(The Daily Signal) – Better late than never.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the giant federal agency housing the National Institutes of Health, just suspended a New…

(The Daily Signal) – Better late than never.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the giant federal agency housing the National Institutes of Health, just suspended a New York-based organization from participating in government procurement programs over its role as a subcontractor of a Chinese research facility connected to the first outbreak of COVID-19.

HHS also notified Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, of his organization’s suspension from eligibility for government grant programs for at least three years.

Following Daszak’s sworn testimony, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, chaired by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, published an extensive staff report May 1 on EcoHealth Alliance’s research activities.

That report recommended suspension and debarment proceedings against Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance, which had been a subcontractor of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China.

HHS, heeding the subcommittee’s recommendations, did just that.

The subcommittee on the COVID-19 pandemic held another hearing Wednesday in which Republicans and Democrats alike questioned Dr. David Morens, a former senior adviser to Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime chief of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about what a staff memorandum calls “overwhelming evidence” that Morens “engaged in serious misconduct and potentially illegal actions.”

Morens testified, in part, that he didn’t realize that deleting certain emails would constitute destroying or tampering with federal records when he wrote about doing so in correspondence related to COVID-19.

“I was not aware that anything I deleted like emails was a federal record,” Morens said at one point, as the New York Post reported. 

The subcommittee’s staff memo cites previously unreleased emails, obtained by subpoena, that it says incriminate Morens in “undermining the operations of the U.S. government, unlawfully deleting federal COVID-19 records, using a personal email to avoid the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and repeatedly acting unbecoming of a federal employee.”

How did we get to this point?

The Record

Since 2014, EcoHealth Alliance has received approximately $8 million in federal government grants to study coronaviruses. In 2020, the Trump administration terminated grant funding for the organization. However, despite unresolved controversies, the Biden administration in 2022 approved $650,000 in renewed funding for EcoHealth.

In 2023, the HHS Office of Inspector General found that the National Institutes of Health had failed to effectively monitor its grants to EcoHealth for research that incurred “inherent risks.”

HHS’ recent Action Referral Memorandum was based on an accumulation of communications between 2014 and 2024 between EcoHealth and NIH that revealed lapses in reporting, absence of lab files and crucial records on viral experiments, regulatory noncompliance, and repeated failures in transmitting critical information to NIH, particularly in the final report.

In her May 15 memorandum to Daszak, Henrietta K. Brisbon, deputy assistant HHS secretary for acquisitions, declared:

As established in the record, the NIH review of the Year 5 I-RPPR [Research Performance Progress Report] submitted by EHA [EcoHealth Alliance], more than two years late, determined that an experiment by WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology], shown in Figure 13 of the report, had possibly yielded a greater than 1 log increase in viral activity (a tenfold increase in serum viral load), in violation of the terms of the grant. The NIH gave EHA and WIV several opportunities to disprove this finding, but EHA and WIV failed to do so.

Due to EHA’s and WIV’s failure to adequately respond to the NIH requests that the required materials to support WIV’s research reported in the grant RPPRs [Research Performance Progress Reports] and the I-RPPRs be provided, the NIH’s conclusion that WIV research likely violated protocols of the NIH regarding biosafety is undisputed.

For its part, EcoHealth Alliance not only failed to submit its Year 5 report after almost two years, but Daszak insisted that his organization was, for an inexplicable technical reason, “locked out” of NIH’s reporting system.

His claim, however, is unsubstantiated.

Thus, the subcommittee concluded in its report: “EcoHealth violated its grant terms and conditions by failing to report a potentially dangerous experiment conducted by the WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology].”

Word Games

Focused on uncovering the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, congressional investigators have tried to determine whether any federal funding inadvertently contributed to the laboratory development of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Certain facts are indisputable. China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, where the initial outbreak of COVID-19 occurred, was a center of coronavirus research. There were biosafety problems at the institute, a fact reported by U.S. State Department officials as early as 2018.

These problems were acknowledged by Chinese authorities, who identified five “categories” where the Wuhan lab failed to meet China’s national safety standards.

A top scientist at the lab, Shi Zhengli, known as the Bat Lady of China, was a subcontractor for EcoHealth Alliance and she also engaged in gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses. Such research is designed to enhance the virulence and the transmissibility of pathogens.

In 2015, Shi was also a collaborator with microbiologist Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina and other scientists on published research, approved by NIH, about the potential of bat coronaviruses to infect humans. NIH officials nonetheless maintained that EcoHealth’s work with Shi was at the time outside the scope of their restrictions on gain-of-function research.

EcoHealth, as noted, had received millions of dollars in government grants over several years and allocated a portion of that funding for research work in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The institute was unquestionably engaged in dangerous gain-of-function research designed, as noted, to enhance the pathogenicity and transmissibility of coronaviruses.

The crucial question for the House’s pandemic subcommittee was whether any taxpayer funds were used to facilitate such research. Money, of course, is fungible.

In its report, the subcommittee noted that the NIH website, as of Oct. 19, 2021, defined gain-of-function research as “a type of research that modifies a biological agent so that it confers a new or enhanced activity to that agent.”

Subsequently, in public statements and congressional testimony, Fauci and other NIH officials used a different definition, the “P3CO Framework,” which they determined to be a framework for research that would be appropriate under government regulation.

This framework didn’t encompass all forms of gain-of-function research, but a “subset” of such research focused on enhanced “potential pandemic pathogens.” This is a reference to “highly transmissible” and “virulent” pathogens that are likely to cause “significant” human morbidity and mortality.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., recently asked Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH’s former acting director, whether the agency funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab through EcoHealth Alliance.

Tabak responded: â€śIt depends on your definition of gain-of-function research. If you’re speaking about the generic term, yes, we did … the generic term is research that goes on in many, many labs around the country. It is not regulated. And the reason it’s not regulated is it poses no threat or harm to anybody.”   

The central point of contention, then, is the meaning of gain-of-function research.

As House subcommittee staff observed: â€śThroughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many scientists and government officials categorially denied that taxpayer funds were used for gain-of-function research in Wuhan at the WIV. These assertions rested on semantics and the misapplication of understood definitions.”  

Further, subcommittee staff reported, “witness testimony and a plain reading of EcoHealth’s research conducted at the WIV using taxpayer dollars confirm it facilitated an experiment that conveyed new or enhanced activity to a pathogen—thus satisfying the definition of gain-of-function research.”

In the interim staff report, the pandemic subcommittee concluded: “EcoHealth used taxpayer dollars to facilitate gain-of-function research on coronaviruses in Wuhan at the WIV, contrary to previous public statements, including those by Dr. Anthony Fauci.”

The Big Picture

Jim Geraghty, National Review’s senior political correspondent, recently put this set of events in proper perspective.

“Stories don’t get any bigger than the origin of a virus that caused a global pandemic that effectively shut down the world for over a year and changed the lives of every human being on the planet,” Geraghty wrote.

To be clear, the evidence thus far shows that the Wuhan Institute of Virology indeed did gain-of-function coronavirus research, and Fauci was aware of that fact. The evidence also shows that  EcoHealth collaborated with the Wuhan lab institute in coronavirus research, including an experiment to infect genetically engineered mice.  

But as yet there is no direct evidence that taxpayers funded a specific experiment at Wuhan, resulting in a “lab leak” that caused the global COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s why congressional investigators must remain unrelenting in their search for the truth and thwart attempts to ignore, downplay, or rewrite the history of the deadly pandemic.

In that connection, Heritage Foundation colleagues have detailed how Washington’s public health establishment promoted the narrative of a natural origin for the novel coronavirus and how NIH officials and grantees worked to discredit the likelihood of a Chinese “lab leak” as a “conspiracy theory.”

EcoHealth’s Daszak played a key role in this impressive public relations offensive.

He was an organizer and signatory of a March 7, 2020, letter published by The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal. The letter signed by Daszak and 25 others in “solidarity” with China’s scientists warned: “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors, and prejudice that jeopardize our global cooperation in the fight against this virus.” 

Ten days later, on March 17, 2020, several top NIH-funded virologists published a seminal article in Nature Medicine, a prominent scientific journal, emphasizing that the new coronavirus wasn’t a “laboratory construct.” Their article followed a Feb. 1 teleconference with Fauci.

It was an odd turn of events, since the authors of the Nature Medicine article had no independent access to Chinese data and, in fact, initially expressed the view that the novel coronavirus appeared to have a lab origin. Nonetheless, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, citing the Nature Medicine article on March 26, 2020, said it provided scientific evidence for the natural origins of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and discredited the notion that the pandemic originated in a lab.

The dominant media narrative was set.  

For the record, Collins since has told Congress  that the Chinese “lab leak” hypothesis no longer should be considered a “conspiracy theory.”

Federal public health officials’ strong affirmation in 2020 that the pandemic had a “natural” origin was, to put it charitably, a big stretch. Beginning in January 2020, officials in Communist China locked down the city of Wuhan, denied outside access to vital information, and punished dissident Chinese scientists while insisting that the deadly coronavirus had a natural origin—probably an infected animal.

Speculation on the infected “host” has ranged from a pangolin to a raccoon dog, caged in Wuhan’s “wet market.” To date, however, no such viral host has been identified. 

Taxpayer Victory

Wenstrup, chairman of the House pandemic subcommittee, issued a statement May 15 on the HHS response.

“EcoHealth facilitated gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China, without proper oversight, willingly violated multiple requirements of its multimillion-dollar National Institutes of Health grant, and apparently made false statements to the NIH,” Wenstrup said.

“These actions are wholly abhorrent [and] indefensible, and must be addressed with swift action,” the Ohio Republican added. “Eco Health’ s immediate funding suspension and future debarment is not only a victory for the U.S. taxpayer, but also for American national security and the safety of citizens worldwide.” 

Wenstrup announced his intention to deepen the congressional probe into New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, identify discrepancies in Daszak’s sworn testimony, and compel the organization’s leader to produce more documents.

Meanwhile, subcommittee investigators found evidence that Morens, the senior adviser to Fauci, deleted federal records related to the pandemic and used his personal email to avoid disclosure of sensitive communications to Congress and the public.

This House subcommittee is unrelenting.

Up next: Fauci is scheduled to testify under oath June 3 before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. Don’t miss it.