Federal watchdog finds problems with NIH oversight of grant funding bat virus research in China

A federal watchdog has weighed in on problems with a U.S. government grant that funded work in Wuhan, China, on bat coronaviruses that some onlookers claim led to the COVID-19 pandemic. The audit found oversight issues by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and that the grantee had misreported $90,000 in expenses. But it sheds little new light on issues already widely covered and discussed in the media and Congress.

The report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finds “NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address” compliance problems involving the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York City–based nonprofit that held the NIH grant. EcoHealth had sent some of those funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to study bat coronaviruses collected in the wild and examine their potential to jump to humans.

In April 2020, after then-President Donald Trump claimed the SARS-CoV-2 virus could have come from the WIV lab, NIH terminated the EcoHealth grant with little explanation. That step was widely condemned by scientists, and OIG’s report now says NIH improperly executed the termination because it did not provide a valid reason or provide EcoHealth with required information for appealing the decision.

A few months later, NIH reinstated the award but immediately suspended it, setting conditions for resumption that EcoHealth said it could not meet. NIH permanently terminated the WIV subaward as of August 2022 for compliance issues, including WIV’s failure to provide NIH with laboratory notebooks related to the funded experiments.

The 18-month-long OIG audit examined that grant and two others to EcoHealth from 2014 to 2021 that totaled $8 million but focused largely on the nearly $600,000 that went to WIV, including work that created hybrid bat coronaviruses to study the potential of wild viruses to infect humans. NIH had concluded that these studies did not qualify as “gain-of-function” research that requires a special HHS review because the hybrid viruses weren’t expected to be more dangerous to mammals than the starting viruses. But it stipulated that EcoHealth should “immediately” report any unexpected growth of the hybrid viruses to NIH.

NIH has faulted EcoHealth for failing to promptly report this unexpected growth in some experiments. But EcoHealth has countered that the unexpected growth has been misinterpreted and blamed a computer glitch at NIH for a 2-year delay in filing a progress report containing the data. OIG faults NIH for not chasing down the late report, lamenting “missed opportunities” to “take more timely corrective actions to mitigate the inherent risks associated with this type of research.”

However, the audit refrains from commenting on whether the results of the WIV hybrid virus experiments constituted “enhanced growth” that should have potentially triggered the special HHS review. OIG “did not assess scientific results for any of the experiments or make any determination regarding the accuracy of NIH’s or EcoHealth’s interpretations of … research results,” the report says.

The audit found other problems by both NIH and EcoHealth. For example, the nonprofit billed NIH for $89,171 in unallowable costs, it concluded, including expenses such as a $5 alcoholic beverage and a staffer’s $3285 trip to a conference that was miscoded and should have been billed to a non-NIH grant.

OIG recommends that WIV—but not EcoHealth—be debarred from receiving NIH funding in the future, a step NIH supports but noted must be made by an HHS debarment official. A recent congressional spending bill bars any 2023 funding to WIV.

EcoHealth said it welcomed the report and downplayed its conclusions, asserting in a statement that the audit “did not find significant issues with EHA’s grant oversight and compliance.” The group notes that the nearly $90,000 in unallowed costs constituted just 1% of its NIH awards, and that OIG routinely finds similar problems at other grantee institutions. And it pointed out that the audit revealed EcoHealth had not been paid by NIH for $126,391 in overhead expenses. EcoHealth said it is pursuing reimbursement of those funds, which are greater than the unallowed costs it has already repaid to NIH.

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