A House panel this week passed several measures aimed at cutting U.S. taxpayer funding for scientific research in China, as a growing number of lawmakers increase calls for transparency into the origins of COVID-19.
The House Appropriations Committee passed several measures attached to spending bills that would end U.S. taxpayer funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), cut funding for certain medical experiments in China, and investigate why COVID gene sequencing data was removed from the National Institutes of Health.
“We owe it to the more than 600,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 and their loved ones – not to mention the small businesses and communities who were decimated – to investigate and hold China accountable for its role in the catastrophic spread of the virus,” said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Washington Republican who introduced two measures to investigate the missing sequencing data and withhold U.S. funding for the WIV.
Ms. Herrera Beutler said she is encouraged that “we’re a step closer” to accountability and investigating why “critical COVID gene sequences were deleted from the National Institutes of Health” at the direction of a Chinese researcher.
“Our ultimate goal with these measures is to ensure the Chinese Communist Party is not allowed to repeat the missteps and potential cover-ups that contributed to this global pandemic,” she said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah Republican who introduced separate amendments targeting gain-of-function research, said his measures are intended to prevent further catastrophe. Such medical research can alter an organism or disease in a way that increases transmissibility.
“U.S. taxpayer dollars should never fund gain-of-function research in adversarial nations,” Mr. Stewart said “Unfortunately, there is circumstantial evidence that American funding was funneled to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While the world continues to feel the devastating human and economic impacts from COVID-19, we cannot turn a blind eye to this obvious national security threat.”
Mr. Stewart’s amendments would also target funding for gain-of-function experiments in Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
The measures passed by the House Appropriations Committee this week will proceed to a full vote by the House.
The bipartisan support for the measures comes amid growing calls to hold China accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, the Senate included measures to end U.S. government funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology and all gain-of-function research in China as part of the Innovation and Competition Act, which passed 68 to 32.
In 2014, the NIH awarded a grant to the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance to study the threat of coronaviruses from bats, and the project was renewed in 2019 for another five years. The WIV received nearly $600,000 from the grants as a collaborator on the project.
House Republicans touted an eight-point plan released earlier this week that includes declassifying intelligence related to the origins of the virus, and hitting China with visa restrictions, sanctions, and other measures.
House Republicans also held a hearing last month into the origins of the virus, and said overwhelming evidence points to the virus stemming from research at the WIV.
“The evidence continues to mount that this was a man-made disaster that started in the Wuhan lab,” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Louisiana Republican. “If that is the case, then it might be considered dramatically worse than Chernobyl.”
The panel included testimony from four public health professionals who contend that evidence points to the virus originating from the lab, rather than through naturally occurring infectious disease transmission.
The inquiry came well over a year after the first cases of the virus were confirmed, and were determined to have most likely emerged from nature.
In late March, the World Health Organization reported that the virus most likely originated in bats before being transmitted to humans via a yet-to-be-determined intermediary host, and that a laboratory origin was unlikely.
Many were critical of the report and the WHO, citing China’s lack of transparency and challenging the impartiality of the report.
In April, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated the U.S. Intelligence Community agreed with the consensus at the time that the virus was “not man-made or genetically modified,” and vowed to continue to determine whether the virus originated through natural transmission or “if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
But questions into the origin and calls for further transparency have grown in recent months.
In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that three Wuhan lab employees sought care for COVID-like symptoms in November of 2020.
Days later, the White House pressed for further investigation into the origins after receiving an inconclusive report by the Intelligence Community on the matter, escalating international pressure on China for transparency.
“The United States will also keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence,” President Biden said in a statement announcing the investigation.