A federal watchdog has weighed in on problems with a US government grant that funded work in Wuhan, China, on bat coronaviruses that some observers say caused the COVID-19 pandemic. The audit found oversight issues at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and that the grantee had misreported $90,000 in expenses. But it provides little new insight into issues that have already been widely covered and discussed in the media and in Congress.
The report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that “NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address” compliance problems related to the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. based in New York City. who held the NIH grant. EcoHealth sent some of those funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) to study bat coronaviruses collected in the wild and to examine their ability to jump to humans.
In April 2020, after President Donald Trump claimed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have come from the WIV laboratory, NIH terminated the EcoHealth Alliance grant without much explanation. That step was widely criticized by scientists, and the OIG report now says that NIH improperly executed the termination because it did not provide a valid reason or provide EcoHealth with necessary information to appeal the decision.
A few months later, NIH reinstated the award but immediately suspended it. NIH permanently terminated WIV’s subaward from August 2022 due to compliance issues, including WIV’s failure to provide NIH with laboratory notebooks related to the funded experiments.
The 18-month OIG audit examined that grant and two others to EcoHealth worth $8 million but focused heavily on the nearly $600,000 that went to WIV, including work that created a hybrid bat coronavirus to study the ability of wild viruses to infect human cells. . NIH concluded that these studies did not qualify as “gain-of-function” research requiring special HHS review because the hybrid viruses were not expected to be more dangerous to mammals than the original viruses. But he ordered that EcoHealth should “immediately report any unexpected growth of the hybrid viruses to NIH.
NIH faulted EcoHealth for failing to promptly report this unexpected growth in some experiments. But EcoHealth countered that the unexpected growth was a misunderstanding and blamed a computer glitch at NIH for a 2-year delay in filing a progress report containing the data. The OIG faults NIH for not pursuing 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 represented “enhanced growth” that should have prompted the special HHS review. The OIG “did not evaluate the scientific results of any of the experiments or make any determinations regarding the accuracy of NIH or EcoHealth’s interpretations of … research findings,” the report states.
The audit found other problems at both NIH and EcoHealth. For example, the nonprofit billed NIH for $89,171 in unallowable costs, he concluded, including expenses such as a $5 alcoholic drink and a $3285 staff trip to a conference that were miscoded and should have been billed with a non-NIH grant.
The OIG recommends that WIV—but not EcoHealth—be barred from receiving NIH funding in the future, a step NIH supports but an HHS prohibition official must note. A recent Congressional spending bill prohibits any 2023 funding for WIV.
EcoHealth said it welcomed the report and outlined its conclusions, confirming in a statement that “the audit did not uncover significant problems with the oversight and compliance of the EHA grant.” The group notes that the nearly $90,000 in unallowable costs was only 1% of its NIH awards, and that the OIG routinely encounters similar problems at other research institutions. And he pointed out that the audit showed EcoHealth had not been paid by NIH for $126,391 in overhead costs. EcoHealth said it wants to repay those funds, which are more than the unallowable costs it has already reimbursed NIH.