US halts funding access to Wuhan lab at heart of COVID-19 origins debate
“Immediate action is necessary to protect the public interest," the memo read.
The virus lab at the heart of the contentious debate around COVID-19’s origins has been cut off from U.S. funding opportunities for likely violating National Institutes of Health's biosafety rules, according to a memo shared with ABC News.
The Department of Health and Human Services has suspended the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s access to federal funding, and proposed banning them longer-term after the lab failed to provide sufficient documentation on their biosafety protocols and security measures, despite repeated requests from the NIH for their lab notebooks, files, financials and other records of their research, the memo, signed by an HHS official, states. According to the memo, “immediate action is necessary to protect the public interest."
Because of the WIV's "disregard" of NIH's numerous requests to "provide the required materials" to back up the research in their grant progress reports, the "NIH's conclusion that WIV research likely violated protocols of the NIH regarding biosafety is undisputed,” the memo states.
"As such, there is risk that WIV not only previously violated, but is currently violating, and will continue to violate, protocols of the NIH on biosafety," the memo states.
The WIV received NIH funding through its partnership with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit and longtime collaborator with the WIV on coronavirus research.
The WIV hasn't received any federal funding from NIH since the summer of 2020, according to HHS. Still, their continued noncompliance has shown that they "lack the present responsibility to participate" in federal funding programs altogether, the memo states.
This move now makes the WIV ineligible for future federal awards from any U.S. agency, including new contracts, grants and other transactions.
The WIV has 30 days to respond to the notice. If they don't respond, proceedings will begin to ban them longer term.
An HHS spokesperson tells ABC News they have yet to receive a response from the WIV.
There is "adequate evidence in the record" to ban them longer term, and "immediate action is necessary to protect the public interest," the memo said.
HHS sent a letter to the WIV's director general informing the institution of their suspension and possible long-term federal funding ban. The Monday-dated letter, shared with ABC News and signed by an HHS official, was sent via email, fax and UPS. The suspension was effective immediately, the letter said.
This suspension is a temporary action, but meanwhile, "immediate action is necessary to protect the integrity of federal procurement and non-procurement activities," the letter to WIV's director general said.
The WIV's "affiliation with, or relationship to, any organization doing business" with the U.S. government "will be carefully examined to determine the impact of those ties on the responsibility of that organization" on their work with the government.
How long a long-term ban would last is not definitive: HHS' letter to WIV's director general noted longer-term funding bans are "generally" no more than three years. It could, however, be shorter or longer as "circumstances warrant" based on mitigating or aggravating factors and the seriousness of the situation.
An HHS spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News that this move comes after a lengthy review, noting the agency "took action" on cutting the WIV's funding access "after a monthslong review conducted by the Biden administration. The move was undertaken due to WIV’s failure to provide documentation on WIV’s research requested by NIH related to concerns that WIV violated NIH’s biosafety protocols. In short, HHS finds 'that WIV is not compliant with federal regulations and is not presently responsible.'”
"This formal process began in September 2022, with new information continuing to be provided to the HHS official in charge until June 2023," the statement continued. "Throughout this time, WIV did not receive any federal funding from NIH and has not received any federal funding from NIH since July 2020."
It’s not the first time this lab has come under scrutiny for its lack of cooperation and questionable biosafety standards.
Renowned for its massive collection of, and advanced research on, bat coronaviruses, the WIV has been central to one of the leading COVID-19 origin theories -- that an accidental research-related incident at the lab could have first unleashed the virus on the world and sparked the pandemic.
The nine-page memo outlines nearly ten years of correspondence with EcoHealth regarding their grant and research at the WIV which the informed the suspension, and which span before, during and after the pandemic. It makes no referendum on where the pandemic began in the decision to cut funding -- whether a lab leak or a natural animal spillover -- however the ongoing mystery over COVID-19’s origins exposed urgent questions over biosafety and transparency that have are core to the issues behind the WIV’s suspension now.
Since the pandemic's inception, as Beijing and the WIV have stonewalled numerous investigations and COVID-19’s origins remained unresolved, the lab has become a symbol of the still-inscrutable source of the virus that has killed nearly 7 million people worldwide, per the World Health Organization.
The Biden administration has focused on the lab in their probe into COVID-19’s origins, and the White House, the U.S. intelligence community, and many in the international public health community have consistently and vociferously criticized Beijing and WIV for stonewalling their investigations.
The WIV has also become highly politicized and used as a polemic cudgel, with GOP members using NIH's funding to WIV to attack, among others, former National Institute of Health Director Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In their summary on potential links between the WIV and COVID-19’s origins declassified last month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence noted that while they didn't know of a specific biosafety incident that spurred the pandemic, they concluded the WIV did not always use adequate safety precautions for the risky research they were carrying out -- which could increase the risk of "accidental exposure" to viruses.
In January, a report from HHS' inspector general found that "despite identifying potential risks associated with research being performed under the EcoHealth awards, NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address" their compliance with research requirements.
"WIV’s lack of cooperation with the international community following the COVID-19 outbreak—consistent with the response from China—limited EcoHealth’s ability to monitor its subrecipient, and greater transparency is needed about information from WIV," OIG's report read.