The National Institutes of Health’s inspector general issued a "damning" report of the team led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, which funded research into coronaviruses in Wuhan, China.
The agency watchdog on Wednesday said that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases made egregious errors in its oversight of the risky bat research it financed at the EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit group at the center of widespread speculation that COVID-19 could have leaked into the human population due to a lab leak in Wuhan.
The investigators found that EcoHealth was two years late reporting to Fauci’s subagency that its lab-made coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were far more infectious than their natural counterparts. The report also found that the NIH did not refer the findings to an independent government panel designed to oversee so-called gain-of-function research.
"It’s a damning indictment of NIH," Georgetown University professor and White House health security adviser Lawrence O. Gostin told the New York Times. "This report really is the first truly independent and nonpartisan review of NIH procedures with research on enhanced pathogens, and it shows grave errors in following NIH’s own rules and also in just a diligent monitoring and oversight that the public would expect."
Fauci’s team doled out $8 million to EcoHealth to research bat coronaviruses, $600,000 of which it funneled to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, from 2014 through 2021. The nonprofit group also misused $89,171 in grant funds and failed to ensure its Chinese research partners complied with federal requirements, the inspector general reported.
"NIH missed opportunities to more effectively monitor research," the NIH inspector general reported. "With improved oversight, NIH may have been able to take more timely corrective actions to mitigate the inherent risks associated with this type of research."
The findings come in advance of expected investigations by House Republicans into the origins of the pandemic. Fauci, who stepped down as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in December, is expected to be a centerpiece in those hearings.
EcoHealth said in a statement Wednesday that it was vindicated by the NIH inspector general’s report, noting that the investigators did not find "significant" issues with its grant oversight and compliance. The group also claimed it was underpaid $126,391 as part of its research with the Wuhan lab and is seeking reimbursement of those funds from the NIH.
EcoHealth, however, isn’t hard on cash. The group has $34 million worth of active government grants across 12 projects, the most recent of which was a $3 million Department of Defense contract awarded in December to fund its efforts to combat pandemic threats in the Philippines, the Daily Caller reported.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) introduced legislation on Wednesday to bar the federal government from further funding EcoHealth.
"While NIH certainly shares in the blame, EcoHealth Alliance is ultimately at fault for failing to tell the world what was really going on at China’s Wuhan Institute. They are guilty of either complacency or a cover-up, or maybe a little of both," Ernst said in a statement Wednesday.
Fauci played a key role at the onset of the pandemic in 2020 in quashing debate about the possibility that EcoHealth’s taxpayer-funded research with the Wuhan lab could be connected to the COVID-19 outbreak. EcoHealth president Peter Daszak personally thanked Fauci in an April 2020 email for his efforts to dispel "myths" surrounding his group and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Fauci also vehemently denied that his subagency funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, leading Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) to accuse the infectious disease expert of lying to Congress in a heated July 2021 hearing.
Fauci changed his tune about the origins of the pandemic just before he retired from government service. He said in late November that he has a "completely open mind" over COVID-19’s origin.