Pentagon Can't Figure Out How Much Money It Spent on Risky Virus Research in China

Inspector general report reveals 'Washington hasn’t learned any lessons from COVID,' top GOP Senator says

A Wuhan, China, lab technician in Feb. 2020 ( Getty Images)
June 21, 2024

How much taxpayer money has the Pentagon sent to Chinese institutions to research deadly viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19? The answer to that is a mystery—even to the Pentagon.

Significant "limitations" in the Pentagon’s internal grant tracking systems have rendered it impossible for the military to determine exactly how much money it has provided to Chinese research laboratories for risky experiments to boost deadly pandemic pathogens, according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report released Thursday. It’s standard practice for recipients of federal research grants to forward a portion of their federal funding to subgrantees, but Pentagon officials told investigators that they are not required to keep track of those subgrantees.

"[T]he full extent of DoD funds provided to Chinese research laboratories or other foreign countries for research related to enhancement of pathogens of pandemic potential is unknown," the Department of Defense Inspector General said in its report.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) said in a statement Friday the Pentagon’s data limitations are unacceptable.

"This report confirms that Washington hasn’t learned any lessons from COVID," Ernst told the Washington Free Beacon. "There is zero reason for taxpayers to be funding risky Chinese research that could be used against Americans. We need real accountability from the Pentagon explaining what on earth is going on and to pass my TRACKS Act, which will require every penny sent to mad scientists in China be accounted for and the receipts be publicly posted."

Despite its data limitations, the Pentagon identified that it awarded at least seven grants, contracts, or subgrants from 2014 through 2023 that funded research in China that could have resulted in the enhancement of deadly viruses such as coronavirus or Ebola. But officials insisted that work was for "defensive purposes" such as identifying the potential threat posed by a deadly pathogen. The Department of Defense Inspector General’s report did not disclose a dollar figure for those grants, or any specific details on the nature of the research they funded. Several pages of the report were redacted.

The federal government’s inability to track grant subawards has been a persistent thorn in its side since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when news surfaced that, immediately prior to the outbreak, the virus hunting group EcoHealth Alliance had doled out $600,000 in National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases subawards to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study bat coronaviruses closely related to the one that causes COVID-19.

Subsequent reporting revealed that EcoHealth Alliance was years late reporting back to federal authorities that its taxpayer-funded experiments with the Wuhan lab resulted in artificially boosted bat coronaviruses that were far more infectious to humanized mice than their natural counterparts, otherwise known as gain-of-function. Some virologists say those experiments likely caused the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

Since the early days of the pandemic, former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci has adamantly denied that EcoHealth Alliance conducted gain-of-function experiments with the Wuhan lab.

But National Institutes of Health principal deputy director Laurance Tabak admitted during a congressional hearing in May that EcoHealth Alliance’s taxpayer-funded work with the Wuhan lab crossed the line into gain-of-function research. And that same month, the Department of Health and Human Services suspended EcoHealth Alliance from federal funding in part because of its reporting failures.

EcoHealth Alliance also received $44.5 million from the Pentagon from 2014 through 2023 for projects focused on "pathogen-related biosurveillance studies" in foreign countries, but military officials said none of that funding was allocated to China.