House Republicans Call on Fauci to Explain NIH Grant Funding 'Gain-of-Function' Research in Wuhan
In May, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has never funded gain-of-function research. However, some GOP lawmakers have argued that a 2014 NIH subgrant did just that.
Rep. James Comer (R-KY), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Jim Jordan (R-OH), Ranking Member of the House Committee on the Judiciary, issued a memo on Friday demanding Fauci and Dr. Kristian Andersen, a professor at Scripps Research Institute's Department of Immunology and Microbiology, to brief their respective committees on the type of gain-of-function research that occurred at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and whether SARS-CoV-2 was engineered to be more contagious.
Gain-of-function research involves the genetic alteration of an organism, in a way that may enhance the biological functions of gene products.
"NIAID funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and this research did not go through the proper oversight," Comer and Jordan wrote.
"It is unclear why you would continue to testify otherwise," the GOP lawmakers said, referring to Fauci's recent testimony before the US Senate, when he got into a shouting match with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) over the claims that the US' leading infectious disease expert lied about NIH funding.
"We therefore ask you again to please clarify what you meant when you said twice—under oath—'[t]he NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the [WIV]," Comer and Jordan wrote.
The NIH funding in question came as part of a 2014 award from the research agency to EcoHealth Alliance. The $3.4 million grant, to be distributed over a six-year period, was tied to research on the emergence of coronaviruses from bats. Despite a 2019 renewal, the project was ultimately canceled in April 2020, after the first few months of the COVID pandemic in the US.
According to Fauci, around $600,000 of US grant money was provided to the Wuhan Institute of Virology via subcontract.
The overarching argument raised by House Republicans is based on the opinion that Washington engaged in the funding of gain-of-function research, which was subject to a US government moratorium from October 2014 to December 2017.
The White House said
at the time that the pause would specifically relate to the funding of "gain-of-function research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route."
By December 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services framework detailed
that enhanced "potential pandemic pathogens" (PPP) do not include "naturally occurring pathogens that are circulating in or have been recovered from nature."
Richard Ebright, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, has argued that the project "was — unequivocally — gain-of-function research" because it "met the definition for gain-of-function research of concern under the 2014 Pause."
However, Fauci asserted to the US Senate earlier this month that this matter "has been evaluated multiple times by qualified people to not fall under the gain-of-function definition," adding that it was "molecularly impossible" for the viruses involved to have resulted in SARS-CoV-2.
Both the NIH
and EcoHealth have denied funding "gain-of-function" research.
Alina Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, argued on Twitter earlier this year that the gain-of-function moratorium does not apply to the subgrant because the order did not pertain to naturally occurring SARS viruses.
"The work ultimately was not aimed at creating viruses that were more infectious. It was taking parts of natural viruses and studying them in well-characterized virus genome backbones," she detailed in a thread on the matter. "The work ultimately was not aimed at creating viruses that were more infectious. It was taking parts of natural viruses and studying them in well-characterized virus genome backbones."