At its best, scientific research seeks to explore the universe around us, find ways to understand it better, and harness its power for the benefit of humanity. I support research because I believe that having more information in any field leads to better decisions.
Unfortunately, scientific research can also be misused or lead to unintended but harmful consequences. Institutions engaged in research must apply precautions to reduce the chance that scientific knowledge becomes destructive rather than constructive.
Anyone who believes in these principles ought to be disturbed by two recent developments.
The first is the resumption of funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for EcoHealth Alliance.
Regular readers of this column will know that, as part of an investigation by Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, I have been questioning EcoHealth’s involvement in bat coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, supported by NIH grants. The COVID-19 pandemic that has wrought havoc around the world may have escaped accidentally from that lab; I believe the evidence is strong enough to indicate it did.
EcoHealth has not been forthcoming in explaining the details of its involvement at the Wuhan lab. In fact, its leader, Dr. Peter Daszak, hurriedly sought to shut down scientific debate over COVID’s origins and has not cooperated with our investigation.
In 2020, NIH suspended EcoHealth’s grant due to concerns about the organization’s lack of oversight on activities in Wuhan. In 2021, NIH confirmed that EcoHealth did not comply with NIH’s safety rule on excessive virus growth in an experiment involving humanized mice infected with chimeric viruses (viruses composed of two or more different populations of genetically-distinct cells). This year, NIH further revealed that EcoHealth failed to include terms and conditions in its agreement with the Wuhan lab that are required in federal awards. These provisions would guarantee access to the lab’s records relevant to the award.
NIH reached the conclusion that EcoHealth’s failures in Wuhan represented “material failures to comply with the terms of its award.” EcoHealth’s failures meant NIH could not examine materials from the Wuhan lab that it should have been able to access.
Nevertheless, on September 22 of this year, NIH issued a new grant to EcoHealth. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told the Washington Post that EcoHealth “adequately addressed” the administrative problems found in its previous grant. He indicated that NIH’s hands were therefore tied and put the agency at risk of a lawsuit if it did not issue a grant to EcoHealth.
I am far from persuaded that EcoHealth has adequately addressed any of its problems, and NIH itself has been woefully unresponsive to our requests for information. President Reagan was fond of quoting the Russian proverb “Trust, but verify” in his dealings with the Soviet Union. EcoHealth has shown itself unworthy of trust and unwilling to verify, and NIH should recognize that.
The second disturbing development stems from research being conducted by NIAID on monkeypox. This is the institute of the NIH led by Dr. Fauci.
In the middle of a monkeypox outbreak, news reports from the September 2022 issue of Science have detailed experiments by NIAID transferring genes from one form of the virus to another. The result of these experiments, conducted without a clear civilian practical application, could yield a lab-generated monkeypox virus that is 1,000 times more lethal in mice than the current monkeypox virus currently circulating in humans but just as contagious.
I have always supported scientific research, but that research must be conducted responsibly, especially if taxpayer dollars are involved. The American people should not be called on to empty their wallets in support of research that will endanger them.
I urge the entities making decisions about research to be fully transparent about their process and forthcoming to questions from elected representatives. Not only taxpayer dollars but scientific integrity is at stake.