Federal government investigators said Tuesday that they are launching a review into how the National Institutes of Health manages and monitors its grant program, which likely includes money connected to a Wuhan lab that GOP lawmakers have been scrutinizing.
Republicans have zeroed in on NIH’s relationship with EcoHealth Alliance, the global nonprofit that helped fund some research at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology, to attack Dr. Anthony Fauci and score political points.
The comprehensive review also coincides with renewed questions over the origin of the Covid-19 virus and the potential role that China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology may have played.
“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, the director of communications for the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, told CNN.
“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,” Williams said.
Roughly 80% of NIH funding goes to supporting research grants, including grants to foreign organizations. According to the work plan on the review, it will look at how these grants are monitored and making sure the recipient’s use and management of NIH grant funds is in accordance with federal requirements.
One NIH official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the review openly, called it “political” in nature but believed that ultimately it would be a good thing and would clear NIH of any wrongdoing.
“It’s an opportunity to educate the public,” the official said.
Questions about the relationship between NIH and EcoHealth Alliance have grown louder after Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within NIH, confirmed to lawmakers earlier this year that hundreds of thousands of dollars that NIH had given to the New York-based global nonprofit went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology to study coronaviruses in bats.
“About $600,000 was spent over a five-year period,” Fauci said during a congressional budget hearing. “That comes to anywhere between $125 (thousand) and $150,000 per year that went to collaboration with Wuhan.”
A recent US intelligence report found that several researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized, a new detail about the severity of their symptoms. It’s not clear what might have affected the researchers, there is no indication they caught Covid-19 and the lab strongly denied the report, calling it a lie to push the so-called lab-leak theory for the disease origin.
There are competing theories about how the pandemic got started. One is that it developed naturally in the wild and transferred from animal to human, as many other viruses have in the past. Another is that such a naturally originating virus was studied in a lab and accidentally infected someone. A third theory, most widely discounted by scientists, is that it was engineered in a lab and somehow leaked to humans.
For much of 2020, pursuing the lab leak theory was treated publicly as xenophobic, and, thanks in part to an open letter signed by 27 scientists and published in an influential medical journal in February 2020, scientifically unsound.
But in recent months, the classified intelligence emerged that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who were conducting the kind of controversial research that some scientists now believe may have led to the pandemic had gotten sick in the autumn of 2019, before the outbreak was known to have begun, although there’s no evidence they were infected with Covid-19.
Conservative attacks on Fauci have also intensified after media organizations released a trove of the doctor’s emails.
In one email sent to Fauci in April 2020, an executive at EcoHealth Alliance thanked him for publicly stating that scientific evidence supports a natural origin for the coronavirus and not a lab release.
Fauci recently told CNN’s John Berman the email was being misconstrued and called claims he had a cozy relationship with the people behind the Wuhan lab research “nonsense.”
“I have always said, and will say today to you, John, that I still believe the most likely origin is from an animal species to a human, but I keep an absolutely open mind that if there may be other origins of that, there may be another reason, it could have been a lab leak,” Fauci told Berman. “I believe if you look historically, what happens in the animal-human interface, that in fact the more likelihood is that you’re dealing with a jump of species. But I keep an open mind all the time. And that’s the reason why I have been public that we should continue to look for the origin.
“You can misconstrue it however you want – that email was from a person to me saying ‘thank you’ for whatever it is he thought I said, and I said that I think the most likely origin is a jumping of species. I still do think it is, at the same time as I’m keeping an open mind that it might be a lab leak.”
Nonetheless, Republicans are using the emails – and controversy about how the pandemic began and whether US government grant money can be connected to it – to fundraise and campaign against the Biden administration.
GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has lashed out at Fauci, calling for his ouster.
“He’s continuously and deliberately misleading the public at every turn. It’s time to FIRE FAUCI,” a Paul fundraising email read. “There are 2,000 emails proving Fauci chose his own ego over the facts.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio recently penned a Fox News op-ed titled “If Biden Believes in Science, He Must Fire Fauci.”
President Joe Biden was asked earlier this month if he still had confidence in Fauci.
“Yes, I am very confident in Dr. Fauci,” Biden said.
CNN’s Maggie Fox contributed to this report.