The National Institutes of Health made significant errors in its oversight of grants to a nonprofit group that has come under fire from congressional Republicans for its research collaborations in China, an internal federal watchdog agency said on Wednesday.
The findings, outlined in a 64-page report describing missed deadlines, confusing protocols and misspent funds, reinforced concerns about the federal government’s system for monitoring research with potentially risky pathogens.
The report comes as Washington is turning its attention to pathogen research that many virologists see as critical for defending against health threats but that critics worry poses its own dangers.
A government advisory group is meeting on Friday to discuss reworking those oversight rules. The Biden administration has made reducing the risk of laboratory accidents a major plank of its pandemic preparedness strategy. And congressional Republicans are planning hearings on virus research.
Federal health officials’ dealings with the nonprofit group, EcoHealth Alliance, are the subject of intense scrutiny from proponents of stricter lab safety because of the group’s collaboration on coronavirus research with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is situated in the city where the Covid-19 pandemic began.
There is no evidence linking the Wuhan laboratory or its work with EcoHealth to the start of the pandemic. Federal health officials have shown that viruses in EcoHealth’s experiments were not closely related to the one behind the pandemic, and researchers have identified several naturally occurring bat viruses that are much more similar to the one that has killed millions of people globally.
The watchdog report, written by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Inspector General, did not address whether the EcoHealth experiments posed a risk or represented so-called gain of function studies, in which viruses are endowed with new abilities. But it criticized the N.I.H. for failing to keep track of EcoHealth’s work.
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“N.I.H. did not adequately monitor EcoHealth’s grant awards in accordance with its policies and procedures and other federal requirements,” the report said. The watchdog chided the N.I.H. for, among other things, failing to demand a progress report that was two years late and that health officials later said contained evidence of viral growth in experiments that was supposed to have been reported immediately.
“It’s a damning indictment of N.I.H.,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University who has been informally advising the White House on health security issues.
“This report really is the first truly independent and nonpartisan review of N.I.H. procedures with research on enhanced pathogens,” he said, “and it shows grave errors in following N.I.H.’s own rules and also in just a diligent monitoring and oversight that the public would expect.”
The report covered three N.I.H. grants to EcoHealth between 2014 and 2021, totaling about $8 million. In 2016 and 2018, the report said, health officials imposed additional safeguards on EcoHealth research, requiring that the group notify them if coronaviruses generated in its experiments showed signs of becoming more dangerous.
But the N.I.H. decided not to refer the grants to a higher-level review committee charged with weighing the risks and benefits of research involving pathogens with the potential of starting a pandemic.
Proponents of stricter biosafety rules said that decision illustrated health officials’ lax approach to monitoring research that they themselves had expressed concerns about.
“Although concerns were identified by NIAID staff, the proposal was not referred to NIAID’s review committee for further consideration,” said Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense specialist at George Mason University, referring to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which until recently was directed by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“On paper, NIAID staff were encouraged to ‘err on the side of caution’ in identifying and referring such proposals,” Dr. Koblentz said, “but in practice it looks like they erred on the side of complacency.”
Whatever problems EcoHealth had complying with federal requirements, the inspector general said, the N.I.H. overstepped when, in April 2020, the agency terminated a grant to the group under orders from President Donald J. Trump. The watchdog said that the N.I.H. had erred in not citing a proper cause for ending the grant.
In an interview last January with The New York Times, Dr. Fauci said the grant had been canceled because Mr. Trump insisted on it. “The grant was pulled because Donald Trump said, ‘Pull that grant,’ because he was on a storm against China,” Dr. Fauci said. “There was no reason to cancel it.”
The agency later re-established the grant with extensive conditions.
EcoHealth, too, faced criticism in the inspector general’s report, which said that EcoHealth had not ensured that researchers to whom it distributed N.I.H. grant money, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, complied with federal requirements. It said that EcoHealth had claimed roughly $90,000 in improper costs over seven years, including salaries above an N.I.H. limit, bonuses and travel and tuition costs.
EcoHealth said in a statement that those costs had amounted to roughly 1 percent of the N.I.H. grants to the group. It said that it had found separately that the N.I.H. had underpaid the group by roughly $126,000.
The inspector general said that the N.I.H. had told inspectors that it generally agreed with its recommendations, which included assessing its employees’ compliance with oversight guidance and stronger monitoring of EcoHealth grants. The N.I.H. said on Wednesday that it had completed nearly all of the recommended actions.
The N.I.H. has previously taken steps against EcoHealth, including criticizing the group in late 2021 for the late progress report. In August, the agency said it was terminating part of a grant to EcoHealth related to its collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The report comes just as Republicans, newly in charge of the House of Representatives, are preparing to summon Dr. Fauci to testify on the origins of the pandemic.
Some top Republicans, who theorize that the pandemic originated from a lab, have repeatedly accused Dr. Fauci of covering up evidence that could prove their theory. Professor Gostin said the report gives no indication of that.
“While the report validates some of the legitimate concerns about N.I.H,” he said, “I don’t think it validates the highly partisan conspiracy theories, and I don’t think it shows that Tony Fauci or any other N.I.H. officials were intentionally hiding anything or turned the other way.”