GOP wants research group barred from federal funding over COVID work with Wuhan

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A key House committee investigating the origins of COVID-19 wants a scientific research group to be barred from receiving federal funds and criminally investigated over its president’s work with a lab in Wuhan, China.

A GOP staff report released Wednesday from the majority in the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic found that EcoHealth Alliance used U.S. taxpayer dollars to facilitate high-risk research on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the Chinese lab at the center of the lab leak theory. 

The report said the organization’s president Peter Daszak failed to report that research to the federal government, in violation of the terms of its grant from the National Institutes of Health. 

“Given Dr. Daszak’s apparent contempt for the American people and disregard for legal reporting requirements, the Select Subcommittee recommends the formal debarment of and a criminal investigation into EcoHealth and its president,” the report stated. 

The committee issued the report ahead of a hearing, where Daszak defended himself from accusations that he has been uncooperative in the investigation and tried to cover up evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from a Chinese lab. 

Daszak repeatedly maintained he did not conduct “gain of function” research, which enhances a virus’s ability to cause an infection in order to predict pandemics and develop cures. Gain-of-function research isn’t illegal, but Republicans have been calling for it to be banned as they try to directly tie gain-of-function research in Wuhan to the COVID-19 pandemic . 

“Dr. Daszak either cannot or will not distinguish between the common understanding of gain-of-function research and the more technical definitions provided under various and narrowly defined regulatory frameworks,” subcommittee chairman Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) said. 

Wenstrup added that Daszak “has displayed a disregard for the risks associated with gain-of-function research, stonewalled the Congressional oversight process, and willfully violated the federal grant process.” 

Republicans said experiments EcoHealth Alliance was conducting in 2019 made the SARS-CoV-2 virus stronger and more pathogenic.  

Members from both parties grilled Daszak and appeared skeptical of his answers on gain-of-function.  

Democrats focused on the safety of the research, as well as organization’s compliance with federal funding rules.  

In a separate report also released Wednesday, Democrats said internal documents “raise reasonable questions” about EcoHealth getting any future taxpayer funding. 

EcoHealth “potentially misled the federal government on multiple occasions in both their transparency obligations and reporting requirements as recipients of federal grant funding — raising serious questions about their overall commitment to the responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) the top Democrat on the panel.  

Still, Democrats made clear they did not think Daszak and EcoHealth caused the pandemic. 

In combative back-and-forth questioning, Daszak said lawmakers and the respective counsels for both parties were misinterpreting his research. Frequently talking over members asking questions, Daszak defended his work, saying it’s been the target of misinformation.  

Daszak said his family as well as EcoHealth staff have been harassed and received death threats.  

In March 2020, Daszak signed onto a letter to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.” 

Under questioning from Ruiz and others, Daszak said he doesn’t think it’s a conspiracy theory to suggest a lab leak but still believes the virus has a natural origin. 

“I categorically condemn the threats you and other scientists or public health officials have received due to extreme accusations like we’ve heard from some of my colleagues,” Ruiz said, but pushed Daszak as to why he helped write the statement when he had a financial interest in tamping down scrutiny on the Wuhan lab. 

Both Ruiz and Wenstrup said they felt Daszak was dodging difficult questions. 

“Your responses here are unsatisfactory,” Ruiz told Daszak at the hearing’s conclusion. “You are explaining things to your convenience to avoid consequences.”

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