HHS looks to debar group at center of COVID lab-leak theories

May 15, 2024

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has initiated the process of debarring the infectious disease nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) from being awarded federal funds, citing a lack of “responsibility” necessary to participate in these programs.

The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic shared the letter signed by HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Acquisitions Katrina Brisbon to EHA President Peter Daszak.

The basis for pursuing debarment appeared to be conflict between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), EHA and the difficulty that NIH had in acquiring documents and records from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), to whom the EHA had awarded federal funding to for studying chimeric viruses.

Critics, including members of the COVID select subcommittee, have questioned whether the WIV’s research may have led to a lab-leak that caused the global pandemic. EHA has long maintained that the research conducted at WIV could not have led to a lab-leak resulting in the pandemic.

As was noted in the NIH letter, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had previously determined that the research conducted at WIV was not subject to the U.S.’s ban on funding gain-of-function research, which genetically alters pathogens to predict potential mutations that could lead to outbreak in the future.

In her letter, Brisbon recorded instances throughout the pandemic where EHA’s assertions regarding WIV’s research did not align with NIH experts and other points in which the nonprofit failed to provide records requested by NIH.

She ultimately cited EHA’s perceived lack of oversight of its grant recipients; its failure to submit progress reports on time; failure to notify NIH when viruses studied at WIV grew beyond permitted thresholds; and both EHA’s and WIV’s inability to disprove that they violated the terms of the grant.

“I find that the information in the record constitutes adequate evidence to demonstrate that the immediate suspension of EHA is necessary to protect the public interest,” wrote Brisbon.

The decision to proceed with debarment is effective as of May 15. It comes just one day before Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of NIH, is set to testify before the select subcommittee on “discrepancies” between what NIH officials have previously said and what EHA’s Daszak recently said in his testimony to the panel.

Following Daszak’s hearing, select subcommittee chair Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) called for a formal debarment of EcoHealth as well as a criminal investigation.

After news of NIH’s decision broke on Wednesday, a spokesperson for EHA said in statement to The Hill, “EcoHealth Alliance is disappointed by HHS’ decision today and we will be contesting the proposed debarment. We disagree strongly with the decision and will present evidence to refute each of these allegations and to show that NIH’s continued support of EcoHealth Alliance is in the public interest.”

COVID select subcommittee Ranking Member Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), applauded HHS’s decision, marking a rare moment of bipartisan agreement from the committee in which Democrats have routinely accused GOP colleagues of overzealously investigating the lab-leak theory.

“I welcome the Administration’s announcement that it has suspended and initiated the termination of federal funding for EcoHealth Alliance,” Ruiz said in a statement. “Every recipient of federal taxpayer funding has an obligation to meet the utmost standards of transparency and accountability to the American public.”

“EcoHealth Alliance’s failure to do so is a departure from the longstanding legacy of good faith partnerships between NIH and federal grantees to advance science and the public interest, which remains essential for the continued work of preventing and preparing for future threats to our nation’s public health,” he added.

HHS did not immediately respond when reached for comment.