Inspector general closed lab leak theory probe 21 months ago

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The news that the chief American collaborator of the Wuhan Institute of Virology received renewed funding from the National Institutes of Health sparked indignation this week.

Now, new documents may shed light on why NIH grantmakers are not exerting more caution.

The watchdog that ensures the integrity of federal health programs closed a brief probe of EcoHealth Alliance 21 months ago.

Despite several appeals from congressional Republicans to Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm to investigate the controversial pandemic preparedness group, the office’s probe concluded in January 2021, after about four months had elapsed.

U.S Right to Know received redacted copies of all of the documents belonging to HHS that are relevant to the investigation into EcoHealth Alliance, according to the HHS Freedom of Information Act office.

The entire reply comprised six documents.

A further 1,451 pages that the office obtained from NIH were not released. Their release is subject to NIH approval, according to HHS.

EcoHealth Alliance — an organization that collects animal viruses and evaluates their potential for spillover into humans, sometimes using controversial gain-of-function methods — closely collaborates with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on coronaviruses.

An investigation into EcoHealth Alliance that concluded in January 2021 would have missed information about EcoHealth and NIH that emerged later that year. In September 2021, for example, the public learned that EcoHealth had pitched inserting furin cleavage sites into coronaviruses.

The NIH allowed the organization to write its own gain-of-function rules, according to records published in November 2021, prompting concerns among lab leak theorists and independent biosecurity experts alike. In August of this year, NIH told Congress that it could not persuade EcoHealth Alliance to turn over laboratory books related to experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Grimm has broad authority to investigate internal issues at all HHS agencies, including the NIH. Grimm would have access to internal emails that have been heavily redacted when made available to the public, for example.

An opening memo about the investigation is dated September 4, 2020. Investigators first met with NIH on September 29, 2020.

The investigation was closed by January 11, 2021.

The brief investigation was related to an allegation of major fraud against the United States. The tip alleged that COVID-19 was “generated in China with the assistance of an NIH grant.”

It’s not clear whether the inspector general worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigations due to the redactions.

U.S. Right to Know submitted the FOIA in May 2022, so it’s possible that OIG has taken up a new investigation in the intervening months. A spokesperson for OIG declined to comment either way, saying as a general practice, OIG can neither confirm nor deny investigations.

Auditors with HHS OIG have however opened up a more general look at NIH grants to foreign subgrantees, which could touch on EcoHealth and the Wuhan lab. The report is due out in fiscal year 2023. It was previously expected in fiscal year 2022.

Audits evaluate the performance of federal programs and can have less impact than investigations, which dig into possible lawbreaking.

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