The Biden administration has suspended funding to the laboratory in China that’s 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.
In 2014, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) awarded a grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit based in the United States that is focused on research into emerging infectious diseases, to fund a project called “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.”
The institute (WIV) received more than $1.4 million in U.S. government funds for testing under the project, which included experiments that made a bat coronavirus more harmful. Mice infected with a modified version of the virus became sicker than those infected with the original virus, according to documents made public in 2021.
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.”
“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 the 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 debar WIV, or cut off its access to U.S. funding for a period of time. Debarment has a higher evidentiary requirement of wrongdoing, including that officials must determine that 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 that the virus that causes COVID-19 originated at the lab.
Of the 26 documents the 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.
Ms. Rodgers heads the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Mr. Guthrie and Mr. Griffith each chair a panel subcommittee.
The HHS didn’t respond to a request for comment.
An inquiry sent to the address listed on the WIV website was returned undelivered.
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 usually last no more than one year, and debarments usually last no more than three years.
Suspensions and debarments both largely prevent 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 the government was adding provisions to its grant, including a requirement that all experiments be stopped immediately if a novel virus showed evidence that its growth was at least 10 times greater than that of the original virus. Such an increase happened in 2018 or 2019, but WIV didn’t 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 the HHS.
The failure to comply with the requirements meant the research wasn’t adequately monitored, the HHS Office of Inspector General stated in January. The watchdog recommended that officials consider debarring WIV.
The 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 on by Dr. Anthony Fauci despite his not being properly reappointed to his position as director of the NIAID.
EcoHealth also didn’t respond to a request for comment. The group has defended its actions and claimed that the experiments that increased the severity of a bat virus didn’t violate the grant conditions.