Biden admin suspends funding to nonprofit that funneled money to Chinese lab 

Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, testifies before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in Washington on May 1, 2024. Photo by Madalina Vasiliu
Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, testifies before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in Washington on May 1, 2024. Photo by Madalina Vasiliu

By Zachary Stieber 
Contributing Writer 

U.S. officials have cut off funding to a nonprofit that funneled government money to a laboratory in China located in the same city where the first COVID-19 cases appeared. 

EcoHealth Alliance, the nonprofit, “did not adequately monitor” compliance from the Wuhan lab with the terms and conditions of a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Henrietta Brisbon, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH’s parent agency, said in a May 15 letter to EcoHealth President Peter Daszak. Officials also found that the subaward to Wuhan lacked requirements that would make the grant in compliance with federal law and regulations. 

“Given the issues regarding the management of EHA’s grant awards and subawards, I have determined that the immediate suspension of EHA is necessary to protect the public interest,” Brisbon added later. 

EcoHealth, which is based in the United States, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

EcoHealth passed more than $1 million to the Wuhan lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, over the years to study bat coronaviruses. 

In 2019, the experiments yielded a more virulent version of a bat virus in mice, according to an annual report for 2019 that was not conveyed to the U.S. government by EcoHealth until 2021. 

U.S. officials then asked for laboratory notebooks and other files regarding the testing. EcoHealth officials said they did not have the files, but had forwarded the request to the Wuhan lab. Wuhan officials never provided the files, according to U.S. and EcoHealth officials. 

“EcoHealth facilitated gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China without proper oversight, willingly violated multiple requirements of its multimillion-dollar National Institutes of Health grant, and apparently made false statements to the NIH,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “These actions are wholly abhorrent, indefensible, and must be addressed with swift action. EcoHealth’s immediate funding suspension and future debarment is not only a victory for the U.S. taxpayer, but also for American national security and the safety of citizens worldwide.” 

Wenstrup, chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, released a report on May 1 recommending federal prosecutors investigate Daszak over violations of the grant terms. 

Wenstrup, for instance, noted that EcoHealth blamed the delay in providing the annual report on being “locked out” of the NIH’s system, but that a forensic audit by the government uncovered no evidence supporting that claim. 

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California, the ranking member of the subcommittee, said in a statement that he welcomed the suspension of funding to EcoHealth. 

“Every recipient of federal taxpayer funding has an obligation to meet the utmost standards of transparency and accountability to the American public,” he said. “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.” 

Daszak, who holds a doctorate in parasitic infectious diseases, told the subcommittee in a recent hearing that “in all of our federally funded projects, we have maintained an open, transparent communication with agency staff” and “rapidly provided information critical to public health and agriculture.” 

EcoHealth currently has three grants being funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, including a grant to experiment on bats with antibodies against the Nipah virus could be re-infected in lab experiments. 

The Department of Health and Human Services is suspending all funding to EcoHealth and proposing the nonprofit be debarred, or unable to receive funding for a period of time that could last years or even decades. 

“The length of debarment, if ultimately imposed, will be based on the seriousness of the cause for debarment,” Brisbon said. 

EcoHealth has 30 days to contest the findings from the HHS. 

The HHS inspector general said previously that both NIH and EcoHealth officials failed to properly monitor experiments done under the grant. 

The NIH, for example, did not make sure the annual report was submitted in a timely manner, the watchdog said. 

EcoHealth, the watchdog added, should have submitted the report by the end of September 2019 but did not do so until August 2021. 

The HHS previously debarred the Wuhan Institute of Virology from receiving U.S. taxpayer funds over its failure to provide the requested materials. 

The debarment, announced in September 2023, is for 10 years. 

“The NIH determined that WIV may have conducted an experiment yielding a level of viral activity which was greater than permitted under the terms of the grant,” Brisbon said in a letter to the lab’s director at the time. 

The lab’s refusal to hand over notebooks and other materials means the determination is undisputed, she said. “As such,” she wrote, “there is risk that WIV not only previously violated, but is currently violating, and will continue to violate, protocols of the NIH on biosafety.” 

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