NIH Oversight Board Didn't Evaluate US Grant to Wuhan Lab: Report This general view shows the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on February 3, 2021. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
By Brian Freeman | Monday, 05 April 2021 01:18 PM
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) oversight board meant to critically evaluate research that would enhance highly dangerous pathogens did not review a grant that funded a lab in Wuhan, China, to genetically modify bat-based coronaviruses, the Daily Caller reported on Monday.
"This is a systemic problem," said Rutgers University professor of chemical biology Richard Ebright, explaining that the NIH has "systematically thwarted" government oversight of dangerous pathogen research by "declining to flag and forward proposals for review."
An NIH spokesperson said its subagency did not flag the EcoHealth Alliance grant to study Chinese bat coronaviruses for independent review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) review committee, explaining that it "determined research in the grant was not gain-of-function research because it did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied."
The spokesperson added: "We would not submit research proposals that did not meet the definition, because otherwise we would need to submit everything."
The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which received the grant, is at the center of intense speculation that the coronavirus could have accidentally leaked from a lab into the human population.
If EcoHealth’s grant had been reviewed by the HHS panel, it could have either denied the grant or at least recommended additional biocontainment measures to prevent potential lab leaks, according to the Daily Caller.
There was apparently enough evidence that the WIV lab was problematic in adhering to the proper safety procedures.
The Washington Post reported that, after a visit to the WIV lab in 2018, U.S. Embassy officials issued two diplomatic cables warning about inadequate safety there, including a specific warning that its work on bat-based coronaviruses represented the risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.
EcoHealth also has a history of manipulating bat-based coronaviruses, with the group’s president, Peter Daszak, describing what was regularly being done during an interview just weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan in December 2019, according to the Daily Caller.
"You can manipulate them in the lab pretty easily," Daszak said. "Spike protein drives a lot of what happens with the coronavirus. Zoonotic risk. So you can get the sequence, you can build the protein – and we work with Ralph Baric at [the University of North Carolina] to do this – and insert the backbone of another virus and do some work in the lab."
Ebright has said it was the incorrect decision to determine that the EcoHealth grant did not involve enhancing the transmissibility of Chinese bat-based coronaviruses.
In addition, other scientists have also said that EcoHealth’s NIH-funded work in China involved gain-of-function research on bat-based coronaviruses.
"It is hard to overemphasize that the central logic of this grant was to test the pandemic potential of SARS-related bat coronaviruses by making ones with pandemic potential, either through genetic engineering or passaging, or both," Dr. Jonathan Latham and Dr. Allison Wilson wrote in June.