By Zachary Stieber
President Joe Biden’s administration has suspended funding to the laboratory in China located in the same city where COVID-19 cases were first identified, according to a new document.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is cutting off the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s access to U.S. grants, an HHS official said in a memorandum dated July 17.
The institute (WIV) has received more than $1.4 million in U.S. funds over the years for testing under a project dubbed Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence, including experiments that made a bat coronavirus more infectious.
Mice infected with a modified version of the virus, according to documents made public in 2021, became sicker than those infected with the original virus.
That violated the terms of the grant, the HHS official said.
U.S. officials have given WIV opportunities to contest that conclusion, the official said, but the institute “has failed to do so.” That means the conclusion is undisputed.
“As such, there is risk that WIV not only previously violated, but is currently violating, and will continue to violate,” protocols of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which provided the grant money and is part of HHS, the official added. “Therefore, I have determined that the immediate suspension of WIV is necessary to mitigate any potential public health risk.”
Reasons for suspensions and debarments include fraud and violations of a contract.
Suspensions are temporary. Officials are taking steps to, but have not yet, debarred WIV, or cut off its access to U.S. funding for a period of time. Debarment requires officials to determine WIV is not “responsible.”
Multiple bills, including one from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), would permanently bar U.S. funding to the WIV, but they have not yet cleared Congress. Lawmakers have pointed out that risky research has been conducted at the institute, and that some intelligence officials believe COVID-19 originated at the lab.
Of the 26 documents HHS cited in its decision, all but three are from January 2022 or earlier.
“It’s past time that the Biden administration made this decision, but they deserve no credit for finally doing what the evidence and facts demanded. It is outrageous that it took them so long,” Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), and Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said in a joint statement.
Rep. Rodgers heads the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, while Reps. Guthrie and Griffith each chair a panel subcommittee.
HHS did not respond to a request for comment.
An inquiry to the address listed on the WIV website bounced back.
After it receives a notice of proposed debarment, WIV will have an opportunity to protest the proposal. The HHS suspension and debarment official, who penned the new memo, will make the final decision after reviewing the response.
Suspensions typically last no more than one year while debarments typically last no more than three years. The latter have a higher evidentiary requirement of wrongdoing.
Both suspensions and debarments largely prevent awards from any government agency, even outside of the HHS, from giving more money to WIV, but a different agency could decide that the benefits of funding the institute outweigh the risks and fund the institute despite the HHS action.
U.S. officials told EcoHealth in 2016 that it was adding provisions to the grant, including a requirement that all experiments be stopped immediately if a virus grew by 1 log or more. Such an increase happened in 2018 or 2019 but WIV did not inform EcoHealth until 2021, according to the U.S. government. EcoHealth has said it informed officials of the experiments shortly after they were conducted, but U.S. officials have said that notification likely dealt with a different experiment.
WIV also failed to respond to repeated requests for documents to prove compliance with the grant conditions, including files on the experiments, according to HHS.
The failure to comply with the requirements meant the research was not adequately monitored, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services said in January. The watchdog recommended officials consider debarring WIV.
HHS terminated the grant in 2020 under President Donald Trump. Officials soon reversed the termination, but paused funding until EcoHealth and WIV met certain conditions amid information that raised “serious biosafety concerns” regarding the lab work.
In 2022, HHS told EcoHealth it could not send any more money under the grant to WIV. In 2023, the agency renewed the grant to EcoHealth. The renewal enabled the nonprofit to disperse the funds to a university in Singapore.
Republicans said the government should consider blocking EcoHealth from future funding, particularly in light of the discovery that one of the latest grants to the group was signed off by Dr. Anthony Fauci despite his not being properly reappointed to his position as director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
EcoHealth did not respond to a request for comment. The group has defended its actions and claimed the experiments that increased the severity of a bat virus did not violate the grant conditions.