A watchdog organization has filed requests via the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) this week to obtain information about the U.S. government’s funding of China-based gain-of-function studies that many believe have played a role in the origin of COVID-19. 

Gain-of-function (GOF) research is experimentation that enhances the severity or transmissibility of a virus or other biological agent. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have said such work “poses biosafety and biosecurity risks [which] must be carefully managed,” though the NIH have justified funding GOF research “to help us understand the fundamental nature of human-pathogen interactions, assess the pandemic potential of emerging infectious agents and inform public health and preparedness efforts.”

Empower Oversight Whistleblowers & Research (EMPOWR) sent the new FOIA inquiries to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DRTA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to determine the extent to which these agencies have been subsidizing GOF experiments conducted at the Wuhan (China) Institute of Virology (WIV). EMPOWR is specifically interested in exposing information about the funding of research WIV conducted in cooperation with the NY-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, run by British zoologist Peter Daszak. 

In July 2016, Daszak and WIV scientist Shi Zhengli published a paper in the Journal of Virology documenting their unearthing, using NIH funding, of coronaviruses harbored by bats and testing of the dangers those agents posed to human cells. The following year, the journal Nature reported on concerns outside observers were raising about the safety of WIV’s studies, particularly about the possibility that pathogens could escape. Nonetheless, NIH would lift restrictions on GOF research in December 2017 and EcoHealth would continue to pursue coronavirus experimentation with WIV. 

The NIH’s decision to back such dangerous research would become especially contentious in 2020 after the outbreak of COVID-19. In April of that year, it was revealed that Dr. Anthony Fauci oversaw the funding of GOF studies as head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That month, President Donald Trump cancelled a $3.7 million grant to EcoHealth Alliance for research on bat-engendered coronaviruses. 

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives inserted an amendment banning federal funding to EcoHealth in the next fiscal year’s National Defense Authorization Act. But that legislation will not prevent any present contracts with EcoHealth. EMPOWR wants to illuminate the existence of any such current contracts.

It has been already been publicly confirmed that funds from USAID and DTRA have gone to EcoHealth. It has been reported that Daszak submitted a grant proposal to DARPA, though it is unconfirmed as of yet whether his organization has received any money from that agency. That’s a major question that EMPOWR wants answered.

“…The information that Empower Oversight seeks is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the DARPA,” EMPOWR President Jason Foster wrote in the FOIA request to that agency. “Specifically, the public has a significant interest in understanding the DARPA’s decisions concerning the funding of gain-of-function and other research proposals submitted by EcoHealth Alliance.”

Foster noted that over 700,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 infections and that many observers believe a leak from WIV laboratories led to the outbreak of that novel pathogen. Hoping that EMPOWR’s efforts might enlighten the public on what missteps the government may have made in funding risky experimentation, Foster also wrote that he expects the federal government to answer his organization’s requests within 20 business days if not sooner. 

Once EMPOWR has received any information shedding light on these issues, it anticipates sharing that information via its website (empowr.us) and alerting the news media. The watchdog group is encouraging anyone with information they wish to provide that might aid the organization in its investigation to confidentially contact EMPOWR by going to https://empowr.us/contact/. 

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Bradley Vasoli is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Wuhan Institute of Virology” by Ureem2805 CC BY-SA 4.0.