Federal watchdog to examine NIH grants, likely including Wuhan funding

A laboratory technician works on samples to be tested for the novel coronavirus at the "Fire Eye" laboratory in Wuhan, China
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A federal watchdog is opening a review into the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) oversight of grants to support research conducted outside the United States.

The Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced the review as part of its updated work plan. It comes amid renewed questions about the origin of the coronavirus, and efforts by Republicans to show grants from the NIH were funneled into illegal research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Approximately 80 percent of NIH funding goes to support research grants, including grants and subawards to support research conducted outside the United States. 

The OIG said it has previously identified NIH’s oversight of grants to foreign applicants as a potential risk to the program’s goals, as well as the appropriate use of federal funds.  

The OIG said it will review NIH’s monitoring of selected grants, as well as grantee use and management of NIH grant funds in accordance with federal requirements. A report is expected in 2022.

“We share stakeholders’ concerns regarding compliance and oversight of NIH grant funds. We have been monitoring this issue for some time and consider it a high-priority matter that can pose a threat to the integrity of the NIH grant program,”Tesia Williams, spokeswoman for the HHS OIG, said in a statement to The Hill. “Based on our preliminary research and analysis, HHS-OIG has decided to conduct an extensive audit reviewing how NIH monitored selected grants and how the grantees and subgrantees used and managed federal funds between years 2014 through 2021.”

Republicans have focused on the relationship between NIH and the global nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, claiming that the NIH, and subsequently Anthony Fauci, were responsible for funding controversial research in Wuhan, China, that led to the creation of the novel coronavirus. 

The NIH awarded a $3.4 million grant to the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance from 2014 to 2019. The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is the premier lab for studying coronaviruses, was awarded a $600,000 subgrant under that contract, for the purpose of researching bat coronaviruses over five years.

Former President Trump terminated the contract in April 2020 amid his long-standing dispute with China, and attempts to find evidence directly linking the Wuhan lab with the virus. 

Top Republicans, including Trump, blamed China for the emergence of the virus in 2020, claiming it escaped from the Wuhan lab, but never produced evidence.

Still, U.S. public health officials and experts are increasingly lending credibility to the need for a deeper investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and while so far there is no definitive proof the virus leaked from a lab, there’s also not enough evidence that it definitively jumped from an animal to humans, either. 

Trump and his GOP allies have stepped up attacks on Fauci, seizing on portions of his emails and the renewed interest in the origins of the coronavirus pandemic to criticize the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. 

The attacks, which largely draw unsubstantiated conclusions, gloss over the Trump administration’s role in the nation’s early failures to respond to the pandemic.

Updated at 1:30 p.m.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump NIH Wuhan Institute of Virology

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