House GOP says health officials misled investigation of mpox research

June 11, 2024

Federal health officials misled a House panel investigation into potentially risky research of the mpox virus, Republican staff of the Energy and Commerce Committee said in an interim report Tuesday. 

Over a period of 18 months, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) “repeatedly obstructed and misled the Committee” about the research being done by an agency scientist to alter a strain of the mpox virus, according to the report.

The committee sought information from NIH and HHS to better understand the potential risks and benefits of the experiment, first described in an interview in Science magazine, but the report said the agency largely stonewalled those requests.  

“The Committee has lost trust in the NIH and NIAID’s ability to oversee its own research on potential pandemic pathogens or enhanced potential pandemic pathogens and to fairly determine whether an experiment poses an unacceptable biosafety or public health risk,” committee staff wrote. 

Only after the committee threatened a subpoena did HHS officials admit that the agency approved the research.  

HHS maintains that even though it granted approval, the riskier research was never conducted. 

“The experiment referenced by the committee was never conducted, which the committee knows. HHS remains committed to ensuring the safety of biomedical research,” an HHS spokesperson said.  

“The committee is looking for an issue where there isn’t one. HHS and its divisions, including NIH, follow strict biosafety measures as our scientists work to better understand and protect the public from infectious diseases — like mpox,” the spokesperson added. 

But the report noted “no documentation or any other evidence has been produced to substantiate the claim.” 

The committee argues that the NIH approved the study in 2015 and only revoked the clearance once the committee began asking questions. 

“This deliberate, prolonged effort to deceive the Committee is unacceptable and potentially criminal,” the staff report said. “The Committee needs additional evidence from HHS, the NIH, or NIAID to have confidence that the experiment did not occur.” 

NIH scientist Bernard Moss said in a 2022 Science article that he planned work to understand the mpox virus’s severity by inserting genes from a more lethal version of the virus into a less deadly strain. 

The committee alleges the experiments were “gain of function” research, which has become a flashpoint among Republicans amid investigations into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and the potential for the virus to have come from a Chinese lab. 

A second GOP aide said the Energy and Commerce Committee is planning a hearing in “the coming weeks” on COVID-19 and laboratory safety 

The interim report is part of an investigation into the NIH’s research practices the committee first launched in 2022, with a particular focus on mpox and Moss’s experiments.  

“The plan is to continue the investigation, because there’s so much in the way of information and documents that we’re still waiting on … to get an accounting of what actually happened here,” a GOP committee staff member said. 

“We’re just pushing as hard as we can and they’re hardly giving us anything,” the staffer said. “And that is a shattering of norms in which the Congress and NIH have previously engaged.”