A federal watchdog agency for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says in a report released this week that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) failed to carry out sufficient oversight into research conducted using millions in federal funds, including research carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been aggressively scrutinized amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for HHS said in its report that the NIH did not make enough of an effort to ensure that requirements tied to federal grant awards were complied with, despite the potential risks that were known and the monitoring procedures that were developed.
The report focused on the awards that were distributed through the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from emerging diseases. The OIG looked into three NIH grants awarded to EcoHealth totaling about $8 million, which in turn were awarded to several recipients, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Other recipients included the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as well as the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control And Research in Bangladesh. The organizations each conducted research into zoonotic diseases, which are infections spread between animals and humans.
NIH policies dictate that grant recipients adhere to certain requirements, particularly when it came to gain-of-function research, enhancing a pathogen’s ability to cause infection in order to understand its potential to cause outbreaks.
Gain-of-function research has gained notoriety throughout the pandemic, with lawmakers such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) questioning whether COVID-19 could have originated from the lab in Wuhan.
According to the OIG, monitoring of research was done by reviewing lab reports, performing audits and corresponding directly with the award recipients. However, it was found that EcoHealth failed to submit timely progress reports to the NIH, which in turn did not follow up with the nonprofit in a “timely” manner.
“EcoHealth’s failure to submit a progress report in a timely manner and NIH’s failure to follow up on a missing progress report limited NIH’s ability to effectively monitor its grant award to EcoHealth and evaluate whether the special terms and conditions were met,” the OIG report read.
These lapses in oversight were noted to be particularly noteworthy due to concerns NIH had previously raised with EcoHealth regarding the type of research being conducted. EcoHealth was also unable to provide scientific documents from the Wuhan Institute when they were requested by NIH.
The OIG found no evidence that EcoHealth obtained these documents from the Wuhan Institute, and the organization confirmed the lab was not responsive to document requests.
In April 2020, NIH directed EcoHealth to stop providing funding to the Wuhan Institute due to concerns the lab may have been involved in the release of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
Apart from these oversight failures, the watchdog agency determined EcoHealth had spent $89,171 of its grants in ways that fell outside of federal requirements and recommended that these funds be refunded to the U.S. government. In a response letter, EcoHealth President Peter Daszak said they have already reimbursed NIH for these unallowed costs.
Going forward, the OIG recommended that NIH enhance its monitoring and documentation requirements for foreign grant recipients and define what is considered to be “immediate notification.”
The NIH concurred with all of the OIG’s recommendations.