Senior Republicans have hit out at a decision by the Biden administration to award hundreds of thousands of dollars to a virus-hunting group that is already under fire for its previous work with China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Three members of Congress have urged health officials to reverse a recent decision to give over $500,000 to the EcoHealth Alliance to fund its work hunting for new coronaviruses in the wild. The grant is one of four given to the organisation since the start of the pandemic, adding up to more than $7mn in total.
EcoHealth, which is based in the US and led by the British scientist Peter Daszak, has previously been criticised for coronavirus experiments it conducted on mice in 2015 with the lab in Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 was first discovered, and its subsequent failure to disclose the full details of the studies.
Experts also argue that the nature of EcoHealth’s virus surveillance work — which involves experimenting pre-emptively on a range of viruses in order to be ready to develop vaccines should they ever be needed, rather than simply studying specific viruses as outbreaks emerge — is unnecessarily dangerous.
Roger Marshall, the Republican senator from Kansas, said: “The EcoHealth Alliance and [the US National Institutes of Health] are operating in tandem to proliferate risky research with deadly pathogens out of the reach of US oversight.”
Andrew Weber, who was assistant secretary of defence in the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks, called the work “reckless, risky research with virtually no benefit to humanity”.
Despite the criticism, there is no evidence to suggest that the company’s 2015 mouse experiments contributed to the pandemic. The most recent awards to EcoHealth also do not involve the Wuhan lab.
EcoHealth has been conducting research into new coronaviruses for years, often hunting for diseased bats in remote locations in south-east Asia. However, the group came under fire for some of its NIH-funded work with the Wuhan laboratory in 2015, when the lab and EcoHealth took coronavirus samples and performed experiments on mice that made the virus even more deadly.
The NIH admitted last year that it had not been told by EcoHealth about the outcome of the mouse experiments, even though the company was required to do so under the terms of its grant contract.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the most senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, accused the company of not having answered questions as part of a Republican inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
“EcoHealth Alliance and Peter Daszak should not be getting a dime of taxpayer funds until they are completely transparent. Period,” she said. “This is madness.”
The Wuhan lab itself has come under intense scrutiny since Covid-19 was first detected in the Chinese province, and has been criticised by many scientists for conducting its experiments at dangerously low levels of biosafety.
Last October, the Biden administration released a report showing that one unnamed intelligence agency believed the pandemic first started because of an accident involving this kind of research at the Wuhan lab. Others believed the pandemic began naturally, although said they could not be sure.
New disclosures by the NIH show that it has continued to fund EcoHealth over the past two years and awarded a grant for an entirely new project which started two weeks ago.
According to the filings, NIH gave EcoHealth around $1.5mn in 2020, 2021 and 2022 for its coronavirus surveillance work, which includes testing the samples in genetically-adapted mice.
Neither EcoHealth nor the NIH responded to multiple requests to comment. EcoHealth has defended its work in the past, however, saying that the more scientists know about diseases circulating in the wild, the better they will be able to create treatments and vaccines for them should they ever cross over to humans.
Joni Ernst, the Republican senator from Iowa, said: “It is absolutely batty that NIH would give another cent of taxpayer money to EcoHealth.”