National Security

Lawmakers Probe NIH Over Chinese Espionage Targeting U.S. Medical Research

GOP members concerned NIH failing to hold spies accountable  

Francis Collins
Francis Collins / Getty Images

Two Republican members of Congress have launched an investigation into Chinese espionage operations targeting confidential medical research performed by the National Institutes of Health, according to communications obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon.

Reps. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) and Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) are petitioning NIH leaders to disclose how researchers with ties to adversarial regimes such as China continue to participate in confidential research projects and receive American grant money, according to a letter sent Thursday to NIH director Francis Collins. The lawmakers express concerns about a lack of oversight at the agency that they say might have allowed foreign spies to gain access to critical research.

Chinese infiltration of the American medical research community has been a concern for federal authorities, including the FBI, for years. China has been responsible for multiple large-scale hacks on the health care industry, including patient data and medical research into cancer and other diseases.

As the coronavirus has swept the globe and amid revelations of China's efforts to deceive the world about the virus, lawmakers are beginning to conduct audits on a range of federal agencies to ferret out Communist Party-backed spy operations. These investigations have become especially critical in light of revelations that NIH may have funded the Wuhan-based lab near where the coronavirus emerged.

Banks and Gallagher are asking NIH to provide Congress with information about individuals they may have identified as having undisclosed ties to foreign countries. This includes some 250 NIH researchers identified in recent years as having "suspicious foreign ties" that could trace back to a state-sponsored spy ring.

China has long attempted to steal U.S. government-sponsored research, including from the medical community and military-industrial complex. In some instances, Chinese spies have successfully smuggled proprietary information back to the Chinese government.

NIH has emerged as a particular concern for Banks and Gallagher due to lax policies that rarely punish those discovered to have undisclosed ties to foreign governments.

"This pandemic has raised significant questions about Francis Collins's leadership at NIH," said one senior GOP congressional aide, speaking only on background about the ongoing probe into the agency. "We are finding more and more instances of American taxpayer dollars improperly going to foreign entities. Collins is failing to take these instances seriously, only acting when cases come to light. Clearly, we need additional congressional oversight to make sure our tax dollars are being spent wisely over there."

Michael Lauer, director of NIH's extramural research program, recently told Science magazine that China has stolen the agency's research by infiltrating its grant review process and then sharing this information with the communist government. Using this stolen information, China sets up what are known as "shadow labs" to "recreate the stolen NIH-funded research," according to the lawmakers' letter.

In August 2018, "nearly two years after being alerted of possible foreign espionage by the FBI, the NIH launched investigations into 250 NIH researchers with suspicious foreign ties," according to the letter.

At the University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, investigations concluded that at least "five different scientists" had been flagged for "sending confidential information to China."

"Emails were uncovered suggesting a scientist sent confidential research data to China in exchange for $75,000" as well as an appointment to the regime's Thousand Talents Program, a massive initiative to recruit medical researchers and experts.

Investigators also discovered cases in which researchers at U.S. medical schools that received NIH grants failed to disclose their ties to the Chinese government, even after repeated questioning. In some cases, these schools and individuals continue to receive NIH funding.

While the names of the institutions and individuals were withheld in public reports, investigators discovered that one American medical research institute funded by NIH failed to disclose one of its researcher's ties to China. The "institution allowed the individual to continue as a principal investigator on the NIH grant and NIH has yet to take any further action," according to information provided to Congress.

NIH's handling of these repeated incidents has caused concern.

"None of the case studies resulted in immediate, decisive disciplinary action by NIH," according to Banks and Gallagher. "The repeated deceptions outlined over these seven case studies call for an immediate administrative response. But in most cases, the NIH took no action."

In fact, a Senate Committee on Homeland Security investigation found that NIH contacted at least "70 institutions regarding more than 130 individuals" over undisclosed foreign funding.

"All in all," according to the lawmakers, "the Senate report contains seven NIH case studies, all of which involve a researcher failing to disclose a financial or contractual relationship with the Chinese government."

To help Congress address the issue, Banks and Gallagher are requesting the NIH disclose its criteria for grant applications and explain what "administrative action [was taken] against grant recipients who have failed to disclose foreign ties."

They also are seeking to determine if the NIH has taken disciplinary action against U.S. academic institutions that failed to report potential violations by their employees.

This information could help the lawmakers enact legislation to combat China's espionage and ensure U.S. grant dollars are not allocated to foreign agents.