Senate unanimously passes amendment banning gain of function research in China, but there’s a huge catch
Andrew Kerr, DCNF
- The Senate unanimously passed an amendment that would permanently ban all federal funding of risky gain-of-function research in China.
- But the amendment, which was spearheaded by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, uses the same definition of gain-of-function research that is currently used by the National Institutes of Health.
- The NIH used that definition to determine that a grant that included the transfer of $600,000 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in part to tinker with bat-based coronaviruses did not involve gain-of-function research.
- Rutgers University professor Richard H. Ebright previously told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the grant unequivocally involved gain-of-function research and said the NIH’s ability to sidestep independent oversight of such research was a “systemic problem.”
The Senate unanimously passed an amendment on Tuesday led by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul that, if signed into law, would permanently ban all federal funding of risky gain-of-function research in China.
However, even if the measure had been established law prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it likely wouldn’t have prevented the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from providing $600,000 in subgrants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) between 2014 and 2019 in part to tinker with bat-based coronaviruses.
Paul’s amendment defines “gain-of-function” using a nearly identical definition used in the Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) review framework, which was established by the Department of Health and Human Services in late 2017 to provide oversight on such research. Both the P3CO framework and Paul’s amendment define gain-of-function as any research that is “reasonably anticipated” to enhance the pathogenicity or transmissibility of deadly viruses.
But the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, used that same definition of gain-of-function to determine that an NIH grant with the nonprofit group EcoHealth Alliance, which involved the transfer of taxpayer funds to the WIV to study bat-based coronaviruses, did not require independent review by the HHS P3CO review committee, even though some virologists said it unequivocally did.
“After careful review of the grant, NIAID determined research in the grant was not gain-of-function research because it did not involve the enhancement of the pathogenicity or transmissibility of the viruses studied,” an NIH spokesperson previously told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Had EcoHealth’s grant been subjected to P3CO review, an HHS panel would have independently evaluated the grant and, if necessary, recommended additional biocontainment measures to prevent potential lab leaks — or even recommended that the grant be denied entirely.
But the review framework provides no mechanism for the HHS P3CO review committee to take a second look at NIAID’s determination that the grant did not involve gain-of-function research. In fact, the committee is kept in the dark on any grant until a funding agency such as NIAID flags one for its review.
The NIH spokesperson previously told the DCNF it would be “misleading and inaccurate” to suggest NIAID was required to notify the HHS review committee of its determination.
Rutgers University professor of chemical biology Richard H. Ebright previously told the DCNF that EcoHealth grant unequivocally involved gain-of-function research and said the offices of the director for the NIAID and NIH have “systematically thwarted — indeed systematically nullified — the HHS P3CO Framework by declining to flag and forward proposals for review.”
“This is a systemic problem,” Ebright said.
Paul’s amendment, which passed by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate on Tuesday, doesn’t define who is responsible for determining whether proposed scientific research is “reasonably anticipated” to enhance the transmissibility or pathogenicity of deadly viruses.
SENATE: The Senate chamber erupts into cheers after an amendment proposed by @RandPaul that bans US funding of gain-of-function research in China is passed by unanimous voice vote pic.twitter.com/8fQ6hAWpuW
— Forbes (@Forbes) May 25, 2021
Despite this, Paul said in a statement Tuesday that his amendment will ensure that no future federal funds will be put towards gain-of-function experiments in China.
“We don’t know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally,” Paul said. “While many still deny funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan, experts believe otherwise. The passage of my amendment ensures that this never happens in the future. No taxpayer money should have ever been used to fund gain-of-function research in Wuhan, and now we permanently have put it to a stop.”
Paul’s office did not return a request for comment.