A federal watchdog has weighed in on issues with a US government grant that funded work in Wuhan, China, on bat coronaviruses that some viewers say led to the COVID-19 pandemic. The audit found oversight issues by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and that the beneficiary had incorrectly reported $90,000 in expenses. But it sheds little new light on issues already widely covered and discussed in the media and in Congress.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) report finds that “NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address” compliance issues involving EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization. for-profit based in New York City. which had the NIH grant. EcoHealth had sent some of those funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to study wild-collected bat coronaviruses and examine their potential to jump to humans.
In April 2020, after then-President Donald Trump claimed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could come from the WIV lab, the NIH terminated the EcoHealth Alliance grant with little explanation. That step was widely condemned by scientists, and the OIG report now says that NIH improperly executed the rescission because it failed to provide a valid reason or provide EcoHealth with the information required to appeal the decision.
A few months later, the NIH reinstated the award but immediately discontinued it. NIH permanently terminated WIV’s subaward as of August 2022 for compliance issues, including the failure of WIV to provide NIH with laboratory notebooks related to funded experiments.
The 18-month-long OIG audit looked at that grant and two others to EcoHealth totaling $8 million, but focused primarily on the nearly $600,000 that went to WIV, including work that created hybrid bat coronaviruses. to study the potential of wild-type viruses to infect human cells. . The NIH had concluded that these studies did not qualify as “gain-of-function” research that requires special review by HHS because the hybrid viruses were not expected to be more dangerous to mammals than the parent viruses. But it stipulated that EcoHealth should “immediately report” any unexpected growth of the hybrid viruses to the NIH.
NIH has blamed EcoHealth for not immediately reporting this unexpected growth in some experiments. But EcoHealth countered that the unexpected growth was misinterpreted, blaming a computer glitch at the NIH for a 2-year delay in submitting a progress report containing the data. The OIG faults the NIH for not pursuing the late report, lamenting “missed opportunities” to “take more timely corrective action to mitigate the inherent risks associated with this type of research.”
However, the audit declines to comment on whether the results of the experiments with the WIV hybrid virus constituted “enhanced growth” that should have potentially triggered the special HHS review. The OIG “did not evaluate the scientific results of any of the experiments or make any determination regarding the accuracy of NIH’s or EcoHealth’s interpretations of… the research results,” the report said.
The audit found other problems on the part of both NIH and EcoHealth. For example, the nonprofit billed NIH for $89,171 in impermissible costs, it concluded, including expenses such as a $5 alcoholic beverage and a staff member’s $3,285 trip to a conference that was miscoded and should have been billed to NIH. a non-NIH grant.
The OIG recommends that WIV, but not EcoHealth, be excluded from receiving NIH funding in the future, a step that NIH supports but that must be done by an HHS debarment officer. A recent congressional spending bill prohibits any 2023 funding to WIV.
EcoHealth said it welcomed the report and downplayed its findings, saying in a statement that the audit “did not find significant issues with EHA grant oversight and compliance.” The group notes that the nearly $90,000 in unallowable costs made up just 1% of its NIH awards, and that the OIG routinely encounters similar problems at other research institutions. And he noted that the audit revealed that NIH had failed to pay EcoHealth for $126,391 in overhead costs. EcoHealth said it is seeking reimbursement of those funds, which are greater than the disallowed costs it has already reimbursed to the NIH.