House of Representatives measure catalyzed in part by suspicion that pandemic virus escaped from Wuhan laboratory

BY JOCELYN KAISER

An aerial view of the P4 laboratory on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. A bill moving through Congress would bar U.S. biomedical science agencies from funding researchers at the institute and all other laboratories in China. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

A proposal moving through Congress to bar the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from funding research laboratories in China is sparking concern among scientists. If signed into law, the measure could cut off millions of dollars of U.S. funds flowing to collaborative research projects in several areas, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, mental health, and flu surveillance.

The proposed ban, part of a 2023 spending bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations on 30 June, grew out of suspicions among some lawmakers, so far unsupported by evidence, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China released the coronavirus that started the current pandemic, as well as objections to other potentially risky biomedical experiments involving animals. Specifically, the measure would bar the Department of Health and Human Services (the parent agency of NIH and CDC) from funding WIV or “any other laboratory” in China, Russia, or any country the U.S. government has designated a foreign adversary, a list that currently includes Iran and North Korea.

The measure’s sponsor, Representative Chris Stewart (R–UT), says the ban is aimed at ensuring the United States does not fund “dangerous research” in “uncontrolled environments” overseas.

Some scientific organizations are concerned by the proposal’s expansive scope. “It seems a bit extreme,” says Eva Maciejewski, spokesperson for the Foundation for Biomedical Research, which advocates for animal research. “In theory it’s good to have oversight over biosafety and animal welfare, but in practice there may be better ways than blocking all NIH funding to foreign countries.”

The microbiology community is also troubled, says Mary Lee Watts, director of federal affairs for the American Society for Microbiology. “International collaboration is essential to allowing our scientists to … understand disease threats wherever in the world they exist, in order to protect public health,” Watts says.An NIH spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending legislation. But Gerald Keusch of Boston University, a former director of the NIH Fogarty International Center, believes “most of the senior leadership [of NIH’s 27 institutes] will be deeply concerned to have Congress interfering in the review and awarding of grants.” (It is unusual for lawmakers to adopt such countrywide bans on research funding.)

Backing the measure is the White Coat Waste Project, an animal rights group that 2 years ago publicized NIH’s funding of WIV. Justin Goodman, the group’s senior vice president, says that “taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund … cruel, wasteful, and dangerous animal experiments in hostile countries … where there’s no real transparency and accountability.” (The proposed measure, however, does not specifically mention animal studies.)The ban’s potential impact isn’t clear. WIV is largely funded by the Chinese government, and researchers there have received no U.S. funding since NIH, citing compliance issues, suspended a small subcontract for studying bat coronaviruses in July 2021. But NIH supports other research in China, with grants totaling $8.9 million in 2021 and $5.6 million this year, according to federal databases.

Projects that do not involve laboratory work—such as a long-running NIH-funded survey on health and retirement in China—could be spared. But many others would likely be vulnerable, including three projects headed by Chinese investigators studying influenza and the mosquito-borne diseases dengue and malaria, and dozens of subawards to Chinese groups participating in clinical trials of drugs, studies of the health effects of heavy metals, and neuroscience research. The U.S. leader of one clinical trial in Shanghai—who asked for anonymity—said his Chinese partner is a former trainee and “close collaborator,” and it would not be possible to recruit enough patients at a single site in the United States.

The ban would likely have a smaller impact on research in Russia. NIH and CDC appear to have just two active grants there, and they may already be subject to recent White House guidance winding down U.S. research funding to Russia because of its war against Ukraine. There are no NIH or CDC grants to researchers in Iran or North Korea.

To become law, the ban would need to survive negotiation of a final bill with the Senate. Some research groups hope lawmakers will remove the provision before any bill goes to President Joe Biden for final approval, likely late this year.

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