A cache of newly released communications reveals that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allowed nonprofit genetic engineering firm EcoHealth Alliance to police its own risky research on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China.
According to FOIA documents obtained by WhiteCoatWaste, The Intercept, and the House Energy & Commerce Committee, NIH officials were concerned about risky research being done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on a US grant.
As The Intercept notes:
Detailed notes on NIH communications obtained by The Intercept show that beginning in May 2016, agency staff had an unusual exchange with Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance, about experiments his group was planning to conduct on coronaviruses under an NIH grant called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” The notes were taken by congressional staff who transcribed the emails.
EcoHealth was entering the third year of the five-year, $3.1 million grant that included research with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other partners. In a 2016 progress report, the group described to NIH its plans to carry out two planned experiments infecting humanized mice with hybrid viruses, known as “chimeras.”
NIH staff members Jenny Greer - a grants management specialist, and Erik Stemmy - a program officer in charge of COVID research, both expressed concern over the risky experiments - telling EcoHealth that their experiments "appear to involve research covered under the pause," referring to an Obama-era moratorium on gain-of-function research that could be reasonably assumed to make MERS and SARS viruses more transmissible in mammals.
One of EcoHealth's experiments involved using genetic engineering to create chimeric MERS viruses, while another experiment used bat-virus-derived chimears related to SARS. According to the report, the researchers infected humanized mice with the altered viruses.
Disturbingly, after the two NIH staff members voiced concerns over Gain-of-Function research, the agency allowed EcoHealth to dictate its own definition of GoF, exonerating itself of doing 'risky' research. The NIH inserted several obscure reporting requirements suggested by EcoHealth that moved the goalposts of what constitutes GoF.
Of note, The Intercept writes that while the experiments demonstrate a lack of oversight and present dangers to public health, "none of the viruses involved in the work are related closely enough to SARS-CoV-2 to have sparked the pandemic," according to several scientists contacted by the outlet.
In December 2017, GoF research resumed - as long as it adhered to newly created "Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight," or P3CO. That said, language crafted by EcoHealth CEO Peter Daszak helped the nonprofit evade oversight once again.
In July 2018, NIAID program officers decided that the experiments on humanized mice — which had been conducted a few months earlier — would get a pass from these restrictions as long as EcoHealth Alliance immediately notified appropriate agency officials according to the circumstances that the group had laid out.
While it is not unusual for grantees to communicate with their federal program officers, the negotiation of this matter did not appropriately reflect the gravity of the situation, according to Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “The discussions reveal that neither party is taking the risks sufficiently seriously,” said Bloom. “MERS-CoV has killed hundreds of people and is thought to pose a pandemic risk, so it’s difficult to see how chimeras of MERS-CoV with other high risk bat coronaviruses shouldn’t also be considered a pandemic risk.” -The Intercept
"It’s absolutely outrageous," said Pasteur Institute virologist, Simon Wain-Hobson. "The NIH is bending over backward to help people it’s funded. It isn’t clear that the NIH is protecting the U.S. taxpayer."
In a June 8, 2016 response to NIH concerns, Daszak wrote that because EcoHealth's proposed chimeric viruses were 'significantly different' from SARS, the experiments weren't considered GoF, and should not be restricted.
He wrote that WIV1, the parent of the proposed chimeric SARS-based virus, "has never been demonstrated to infect humans or cause human disease," adding that previous research "strongly suggests that the chimeric bat spike/bat backbone viruses should not have enhanced pathogenicity in animals."
What's more, Daszak 'gave his group a way out' according to the report.
If the recombinant viruses grew more quickly than the original viruses on which they were based, he suggested, EcoHealth Alliance and its collaborators would immediately stop its research and inform their NIAID program officer. Specifically, he suggested a threshold beyond which his researchers would not go: If the novel SARS or MERS chimeras showed evidence of enhanced virus growth greater than 1 log (or 10 times) over the original viruses and grow more efficiently in human lung cells, the scientist would immediately stop their experiments with the mutant viruses and inform their NIAID program officer. -The Intercept
The NIH accepted that on its face - with Greer and Stemmy formally accepting it in a July 7 letter noting that the chimeric viruses were "not reasonably anticipated" to "have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route."
According to virologist Jesse Bloom, EcoHealth's argument that their research did not pose a risk of infection is in contradiction to their justification for the work.
"The entire rationale of EcoHealth’s grant renewal on SARS-related CoVs is that viruses with spikes substantially (10-25%) diverged from SARS-CoV-1 pose a pandemic risk," said Bloom. "Given that this is the entire rationale for the work, how can they simultaneously argue these viruses should not be regulated as potential pandemic pathogens?"
Also interested in the latest release is the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who wrote a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins looking for answers.
Summarizing key points is Twitter user @gdemaneuf, with entire letter embedded below.
Letters which have not been made public (why?) but for which HHS arranged an 'in camera' review of printed copies by a bipartisan Committee, at HHS headquarters on Oct 5 and monitored by HHS staff.— Gilles Demaneuf (@gdemaneuf) November 3, 2021
See particularly pages 6 and 7: pic.twitter.com/Wpa2RmEfOl
They got way with it on rather specious grounds.— Gilles Demaneuf (@gdemaneuf) November 3, 2021
No proper risk evaluation, instead a focus on arbitrary definitions which used and abused give an easy free pass.
(Thanks God, nuclear power stations are not managed with such casuistic principles - or we would all be long gone). pic.twitter.com/lksolkTZtv
Clause which was then just ignored.— Gilles Demaneuf (@gdemaneuf) November 3, 2021
Neither EHA nor the NIH paid attention to it when despite all the windy reassurances of EHA, spike experiments with SHC014 produced more than 3 logs of comparative growth (x1000, well beyond the limit of x10). pic.twitter.com/zsIMo9iLvR
Fauci has previously stated that:— Gilles Demaneuf (@gdemaneuf) November 3, 2021
"the benefits of such experiments [--] outweigh the risks. It is more likely that a pandemic would occur in nature, and the need to stay ahead of such a threat is a primary reason for performing an experiment that might appear to be risky." pic.twitter.com/0xvjLns80K