Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) recently initiated a congressional probe into the absence of government monitoring of gain-of-function (GOF) research aimed at making deadly diseases more transmissible.
Jordan and Gallagher’s letter was addressed on Wednesday, June 2, to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Senior Science Advisor David “Chris” Hassell, who stated during a January 2020 event that his department’s oversight of gain-of-function research has faults, Daily Caller reported.
GOF research entails raising the lethal level [virulence] or transmissibility of viruses to understand better and forecast the emergence of disease-causing agents so that a remedy can be created before the disease emerges as a pandemic.
Hassell is the only known board member of the HHS Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) review group, which was constituted in late 2017 following a three-year freeze on government financing of gain-of-function research to give further federal oversight.
“Because you chair the group within the HHS responsible for reviewing funding decisions for research involving deadly pathogens, we request your assistance in better understanding how U.S. taxpayer dollars could fund dangerous research at an unsafe Chinese laboratory,” two GOP House members wrote in the letter.
“There is mounting evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic may have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology with research on bat coronaviruses partially funded by EcoHealth’s grant,” wrote the lawmakers.
But before the pandemic, Hassell’s review committee was not even informed about an NIH agreement with the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance that involves modifying bat-based coronaviruses and the transfer of $600,000 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
The National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), chaired by Dr. Anthony Fauci, declined to flag the EcoHealth award for P3CO review because the sub-agency assessed on its own that the initiative did not contain gain-of-function research, according to an NIH representative.
Richard H. Ebright, a chemical biology professor at Rutgers University, told the Daily Caller that the EcoHealth award “unequivocally” contained gain-of-function research and that the NIH’s ability to avoid P3CO assessment of such research is a “systemic problem.”
In January 2020, Hassell told the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity that the existing definition of gain-of-function research is that the current definition of gain-of-function research is “very narrow … which has resulted in only getting a few influenza-related proposals” for his committee’s review.
“I’ll just probably be more frank than maybe appropriate—I think that’s too narrow,” said Hassell.
Hassell then hinted that the government could be supporting gain-of-function research that his committee hasn’t evaluated.
“I think that could be revisited, and again there could be some definition issues,” Hassell added.
In the letter, Jordan and Gallagher request Hassell to address the “definition issues” he raised at his January 2020 lecture.
Hassell was also requested to confirm if the EcoHealth grant should have been evaluated by his oversight committee.
Republican members also asked Hassel to disclose his conversations with Fauci, particularly any discussions connected to the NIAID’s agreement with EcoHealth that included subgrants to the WIV. On May 20, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and five other Republican senators wrote to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, questioning why his agency had not forwarded the EcoHealth award for P3CO review.