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May 15, 2024 COVID Global Threats News

COVID

‘For Safety of Citizens Worldwide’: HHS Suspends Government Funding for EcoHealth Alliance

HHS today suspended all funding for EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit that received millions in taxpayer-funded grants, including one involving gain-of-function research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

ecohealth alliance logo, word "suspended" and money

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today suspended all funding for EcoHealth Alliance and proposed barring the organization from future government contracts or funding.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded nonprofit was performing gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology before the COVID-19 outbreak and has been at the center of questions about a possible “lab leak” that may have caused the pandemic.

Ongoing funding will end and the organization will be ineligible to receive any further funding from the U.S. government. The funding suspension will remain in effect until the debarment proceedings are complete.

Debarment is the long-term prohibition of receiving federal funds. It is the primary public mechanism that “protects the federal government from fraud, waste and abuse by using a number of tools to avoid doing business with non-responsible actors,” according to the U.S. General Services Administration.

The move to cut EcoHealth’s funding comes two weeks after a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating the COVID-19 pandemic called for a criminal investigation into Peter Daszak, Ph.D., president of EcoHealth, and issued a report calling for a permanent end to government funding for the organization, which has ties to the Wuhan Institute.

During the Republican-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic May 1 hearing, Republican and Democrat representatives explicitly called for defunding EcoHealth Alliance, which Daszak said receives about $16 million in government grants annually.

“This should have happened years ago, and should be the first step in holding scientists accountable for dangerous NIH-funded virus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker, who has covered this topic extensively, told The Defender.

However, Thacker added, “HHS cannot make Peter Daszak the fall guy, because Anthony Fauci and others enabled his behavior.”

HHS told Daszak in a letter that EcoHealth Alliance “lacks the present responsibility” to participate in federally funded programs.

The letter listed 30 pieces of supporting evidence, including notices of grant awards to EcoHealth, letters between EcoHealth and the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the NIIH, among other documents.

The grant suspension and proposed debarment were effective beginning Tuesday. If the proposed bar is ultimately imposed, which appears likely, EcoHealth will not be awarded grants, contracts or subcontracts, unless there is a “compelling reason” to do so.

The letter also notes that debarment is generally imposed for two to three years, although the actual duration will be at the agency’s discretion.

“EcoHealth Alliance and Dr. Peter Daszak should never again receive a single penny from the U.S. taxpayer,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who chairs the House committee, said in a statement. “EcoHealth facilitated gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China without proper oversight, willingly violated multiple requirements of its multimillion-dollar National Institutes of Health grant, and apparently made false statements to the NIH.”

“These actions are wholly abhorrent, indefensible, and must be addressed with swift action,” Wenstrup added. “EcoHealth’s immediate funding suspension and future debarment is not only a victory for the U.S. taxpayer but also for American national security and the safety of citizens worldwide.”

In September 2023, HHS announced it had officially barred the Wuhan lab from receiving U.S. funding for the next 10 years.

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Report and congressional hearing led to the suspension and likely ban

The House committee’s 59-page congressional report detailed the committee’s investigation into U.S. funding and oversight of gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab, conducted under a grant to EcoHealth from the NIAID.

Fauci was head of the NIAID, a division of the NIH, when EcoHealth received the grant funding for its gain-of-function research in Wuhan.

The report focused on a grant — “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence” — which was a collaboration between EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute, several other Chinese institutions and a lab run by Ralph Baric, Ph.D., at the University of North Carolina.

The initial grant ran from 2014 to 2019 and was renewed from 2019 to 2026. It was suspended from April to July 2020 over EcoHealth’s ties to the Wuhan lab.

Congressional scrutiny of EcoHealth’s collaboration with the Wuhan Institute revealed the organization failed to monitor risky coronavirus experiments, failed to obtain lab notebooks from the institute and was years late in reporting on the collaboration to HHS.

On May 1, Daszak appeared before the committee to answer questions about his organization’s ties to the institute and allegations of conducting gain-of-function research on coronaviruses.

Daszak also faced questions about his role in covering up the possible lab origins of the virus by orchestrating a 2020 letter in The Lancet that dismissed lab-leak claims as “conspiracy theories.”

In that case, Daszak failed to disclose that he had a competing interest in that he worked on gain-of-function coronavirus research in Wuhan.

The debate over the origin of COVID-19 has been highly partisan. However, during the hearing, Democrats conceded that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could have come from a lab, although several underscored the lack of definitive evidence for the lab-leak theory.

Daszak faced tough questioning from members on both sides of the aisle about his organization’s transparency and handling of taxpayer funds, biosafety standards at the Wuhan lab, efforts to downplay the role of Chinese scientists in his proposals and communications with government officials through private emails.

And during the hearing, Democrats expressed serious concerns with Daszak’s evasiveness and the need for accountability.

In a recent essay on the hearing, David Robertson, Ph.D., laid out the case for holding Daszak accountable for his role in covering up the possible origins of COVID-19.

“There is a risk,” Robertson cautioned, “that investigators will be content with laying blame exclusively at the feet of Daszak and EcoHealth Alliance. Making Peter Daszak the fall guy would fail to hold accountable the scientists and institutional funders who enabled his reckless research in Wuhan.”

He added:

“Whatever responsibility Daszak and researchers in Wuhan may bear for the pandemic, some of the most prominent officials and science institutions in biomedical research funded and promoted these experiments.

“Some of those very same officials then consistently misled the public about the possibility that research funded by US agencies may have contributed to the creation of SARS-CoV-2.”

Robertson told The Defender he hopes the ban announced today, “is a sign that investigators are willing to pursue this issue, rather than an indication that they have found an individual/organization they’ll be happy to pin everything on.”

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