The National Institutes of Health failed to effectively monitor a controversial grant that was used to study coronaviruses in China, according to a lengthy report released this week from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The report takes to task both the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that received nearly $8 million in grant money from the NIH between May 2014 and July 2021, some of which it used to help fund coronavirus research at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. EcoHealth Alliance’s work with the Wuhan lab has plunged it into the center of the stormy debate over the origin of Covid-19.
Among other findings, the inspector general report concluded that EcoHealth Alliance failed to immediately notify the NIH about the unexpected results of certain U.S.-funded research in Wuhan that involved lab-manipulated coronaviruses, despite an obligation to do so. The report also found that since late 2021, the Wuhan Institute of Virology has not been responsive to NIH and EcoHealth Alliance requests to provide lab notebook entries and electronic files that could offer insight into the nature of the federally funded experiments performed at the lab. Given the lack of cooperation, the report recommended that the NIH consider referring the institute to the Department and Health and Human Services for debarment, which would block it from receiving NIH funding in the future. The NIH, in a written response, concurred with the inspector general’s recommendation concerning the Wuhan lab.
Of the three major NIH grants that EcoHealth Alliance has received since 2014, the most high-profile by far is titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” also known as grant R01ATI10964. The new inspector general report primarily focuses on this grant. First awarded in 2014 and renewed again in 2019, the grant awarded roughly $3.7 million to EcoHealth Alliance, with subawards totaling nearly $600,000 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, according to the report. The grant money was meant to examine the risk of future coronavirus emergence from wildlife by screening bats for coronaviruses and conducting experiments on coronaviruses in cell culture and in humanized mice, among other research activities.
Between 2018 and 2019, the fifth year of the grant, researchers at the Wuhan lab infected humanized mice with hybrid coronavirus chimeras; such chimeras contain genes combined together from multiple naturally occurring bat coronaviruses. One of these chimeras, according to a 2021 letter from the NIH to Congress, unexpectedly caused mice to “become sicker” than they did when infected with a wholly natural bat coronavirus. Both the NIH and prominent scientists have said that these specific experiments could not have caused the Covid-19 pandemic; the viruses involved are too genetically distant from the pandemic virus.
Nevertheless, the inspector general wrote that EcoHealth Alliance should have immediately reported the experiment’s unexpected results to NIH, as the terms of its grant required, but it failed to do so in part due to limited guidance on reporting requirements from NIH. The inspector general also found that EcoHealth Alliance submitted its Year 5 progress report — which contained details of these unexpected results — almost two years late. The progress report was due in September 2019, but EcoHealth Alliance did not turn it in until August 2021, according to the report. The inspector general chastised both EcoHealth Alliance and NIH for failing to ensure that the progress report was submitted on time.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, meanwhile, has continued to stonewall both the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance, according to the report.
“On November 5, 2021, NIH requested that EcoHealth provide certain scientific documentation from WIV substantiating research covering EcoHealth’s Year 4 (project period June 1, 2017, to May 31, 2018) and Year 5 (project period June 1, 2018, to May 31, 2019) progress reports to gain insights into the nature of the experiments that were performed,” the report says. “In turn, EcoHealth requested the information from WIV. However, based on records reviewed, we did not see evidence that EcoHealth obtained the scientific documentation. EcoHealth officials confirmed to us that WIV had not been responsive to its request to provide the scientific documentation and indicated it was unlikely to receive the requested information.”
The inspector general found other faults with the NIH and EcoHealth Alliance. In April 2020, amid pressure from the Trump administration, the NIH abruptly terminated its R01ATI10964 grant to EcoHealth Alliance. The inspector general found that the termination was not conducted in accordance with federal regulations and policies. The grant was later reinstated, though the NIH immediately suspended it. In August 2022, the agency terminated the grant’s subaward that was being used to fund the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The 64-page report also found that EcoHealth Alliance had improperly used nearly $90,000 in grant funds since 2014, including for things like salaries and bonuses, travel, and tuition.
In a public statement and a written response to the inspector general, EcoHealth Alliance said it welcomed the oversight, but it pushed back on some of the report’s findings. The group said that it has reimbursed the NIH for the improperly used grant funds, which amounted to only “1% of the NIH grant awards to EHA.” It also objected to the inspector general’s characterization of the tardy Year 5 progress report and the unexpected experimental results it detailed, saying, among other things, that the results of the experiments in question have been misinterpreted. The NIH generally concurred with the inspector general’s findings and recommendations.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University and an informal adviser to the Biden administration on biosecurity issues, said the inspector general’s report reveals “serious deficiencies that need to be corrected as a matter of urgency.”
“It shows clearly that NIH did not monitor and rigorously implement its policies to ensure the safety of the research it funded,” he said. “The public has the right to know in a transparent way how NIH is going to ensure rigorous oversight in the future.”
Sen. Roger Marshall — a Republican from Kansas, a physician, and a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee — said in a statement that the report “confirms NIH’s inability to properly oversee risky research funded by its massive $47.5 billion annual budget.”
The inspector general’s report comes on the heels of a major new draft report from national biosecurity experts that recommends increased oversight of federally funded research that involves dangerous pathogens.