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Secretive Committee On Risky Virus Research Should Be More Open, Chair Says

Ebola
Image CreditNIAID/Flickr

The committee created to oversee federally funded ‘gain of function’ research operates in secrecy and lacks independence.

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The secret committee created to oversee federally funded “gain of function” research that can make dangerous viruses even more deadly should be more transparent in its review process, according to the chairman of that committee, House Republicans revealed this week.

The “review process continues to be unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy,” wrote House Committee on Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Gain-of-function research projects are supposed to be reviewed by a committee as part of guidelines known as Potential Pandemic Pathogens Control and Oversight (P3CO) Framework, created in 2017 after a three-year pause on such research following several lab-related incidents that raised public concerns.

Chris Hassell, the chairman of the P3CO virus research review committee and its only public member, “acknowledged a strong interest in improving the transparency of the HHS P3CO review process and the need for more transparency,” according to the letter.

“None of the HHS departmental review process for approving enhanced PPP [Potential Pandemic Pathogens] experiments is public,” the letter states. “HHS review should make public who participates in the review, as well as the basis of the decision that the research is acceptable to fund, including the U.S. government’s (USG’s) calculation of the potential benefits and risks of the proposed enhanced PPP research.”

HHS gave House Republicans the names of some but not all review committee members, “on a confidential basis because of personal security concerns,” the letter states.

NIH Won’t Even Say How Much Research Gets Funded

Indicating the lack of transparency, National Institutes of Health officials will not disclose how many gain-of-function projects they have funded.

When Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked how many gain-of-function grants his agency had approved, he said “the answer would hinge on how the work was defined in a given year,” The Washington Post reported in August.

“To the extent that we can be transparent, that the system would allow us to be transparent, we go overboard to be transparent,” Fauci also said.

Little Action in Two Years

Hassell has previously said he believes the definition of the research the committee reviews is “too narrow.” Hassell made those remarks in January 2020 — now, more than two years after the Covid-19 pandemic began, that definition remains the same.

Indeed, Fauci and other NIH staff were responsible for narrowing the definition of the research the committee reviewed and for weakening the committee’s oversight, according to The Post.

Many scientists fear to speak out against gain-of-function research because they receive funding from the NIH.

Conflicts of Interest

Last month, the NIH asked the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to evaluate the effectiveness of the HHS P3CO framework for reviewing gain-of-function research, but the House Republicans object that the board is not independent enough.

“We think it appropriate to reconstitute NSABB as an independent entity rather than a group of individuals replete with conflicts-of-interest given the source of grants to them, or to convene an independent body,” Rodger’s letter states.

Like its oversight board, some members of the P3CO review board itself may also have conflicts of interest — one is from the NIAID, a funding entity. “Further, this individual co-authored articles with a principal investigator who was engaged in research proposals that could have been subject to HHS P3CO review,” according to the letter.

“Another member is a gain-of-function research proponent who was apparently deeply involved in the development of the framework. This raises obvious questions of bias in favor of approving incredibly risky research.”

Possible Gain of Function Research Not Reviewed

The review committee also lacks jurisdiction and can be bypassed by funding agencies, the House Republicans wrote.

An example of a grant the committee did not review is one that sent U.S. taxpayer money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is considered a possible origin of Covid-19. The NIAID decided its grant to the EcoHealth Alliance for bat-based coronavirus research did not meet the definition of gain of function and thus was not submitted to the committee, but an NIAID official and others have questioned whether it was gain of function.

“This unilateral NIAID authority shows a lack of independence in the P3CO process and raises significant concerns,” the Republicans wrote.

Panel Members Say Its Oversight Is Weak

What little we know from another committee member affirms the panel lacks power and has reviewed few projects. Robert Kadlec, who previously was chair of the review committee, said, “Frankly, we didn’t have the scientific wherewithal.”

The review committee’s capabilities were not “robust enough to make sure that bad things don’t happen,” he added.

From 2017 to 2020, no more than “three or four” projects were forwarded to the review committee, according to Kadlec. “They were grading their own homework.”

The Post identified at least 18 projects from 2012 to 2020, totaling about $48.8 million, with eight approved after 2017, that appeared to be gain-of-function research.

“However, only one proposal initiated since 2017 has been referred to the HHS P3CO review committee, with two other proposals that existed before 2017 also referred to the committee. Thus, we are concerned that NIH is under referring proposals to the HHS P3CO review committee,” Republicans wrote.

Before his retirement as director of the NIH in December, Dr. Francis Collins said he was open to making public the names of members of the committee. Such a move would help officials to achieve “the kind of transparency that the public expects” regarding such research, Collins told The Post.