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Senate Republicans want to install a federal watchdog within the National Institutes of Health amid concerns a lack of oversight may have led to the Covid pandemic.
They have proposed a bill that would put an Office of the Inspector General in the heart of the research agency to oversee how taxpayer dollars are being spent in labs all over the world.
It comes on the heels of a federal audit that found the NIH failed to properly monitor how millions in federal funds was used at the research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is at the center of Covid lab leak concerns.
The new bill has been introduced by Tennessee Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, and Roger Marshall of Kansas and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn (pictured) is leading the charge to install a federal watchdog group within the sweeping NIH to increase oversight on government funding for risky research
Virologist Shi Zheng-li – nicknamed the ‘Bat Lady’ – is pictured in the lab. She hunted down dozens of deadly Covid-like viruses in bat caves and studied them at the WIV
Sen Blackburn said: ‘As the nation’s leading medical research agency, the NIH oversees thousands of researchers and institutes, and they managed a $45.1 billion budget last year.
‘However, they have been far from transparent, covering up grants for gain-of-function (GoF) research in Wuhan and refusing to release critical data regarding allegations of millions in royalty fees paid to in-house scientists.
‘The American people deserve to know that their tax dollars are being spent responsibly and to advance scientific research.
‘Creating an independent Inspector General within the NIH will help restore much-needed accountability to the agency.’
The bill would give the president the authority to select the officer to lead the NIH OIG.
Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate, which means Republicans would have to lobby several members on the other side of the aisle for their cause.
Republicans can also target the three Independents in the Senate – Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Angus King of Maine. and Bernie Sanders in Vermont, all of whom caucus with Democrats.
There is a widely believed theory that the coronavirus that started the global pandemic escaped from the high-level biosecurity lab in Wuhan as the result of gain of function research.
These experiments involve making a virus more infectious or deadly with the hope of getting ahead of a future outbreak. Advocates of gain of function tests say it helps mankind get ahead of future pandemics, but critics say the risk of starting an outbreak outweighs any theoretical benefit.
At first, supporters of the ‘lab leak theory’ were met with derision and charges of being xenophobic conspiracy theorists.
But a growing body of evidence to support the theory is being published in reputable journals and espoused by more mainstream scientists.
The Wuhan research facility is less than 10 miles from an animal slaughter market where the first series of human cases were clustered. Some experts also claim Covid’s unique spike protein, which it uses to infect people, shows hallmarks of engineering.
But others have deemed those scenarios unlikely and say that there is some indirect evidence that Covid did jump from animals at the Huanan Seafood Market, where animals known to harbor Covid including raccoon dogs, hedgehogs, rats and squirrels, were kept in squalid conditions.
The GOP’s proposal comes on the heels of an extensive audit by the US Office of Inspector General which found the NIH and EcoHealth failed to ‘understand the nature of the research conducted, identify potential problem areas, and take corrective action’.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology contains high level biosecurity labs that conduct research on dangerous pathogens
‘With improved oversight, NIH may have been able to take more timely corrective actions to mitigate the inherent risks associated with this type of research,’ the report added.
It looked at three taxpayer-funded research grants awarded to the now-notorious EcoHealth Alliance, run by British scientist Peter Daszak, between 2014 and 2021.
The report found the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and EcoHealth failed to ‘understand the nature of the research conducted, identify potential problem areas, and take corrective action’.
EcoHealth Alliance was awarded $8 million in federal grants between 2014 and 2021, which it subcontracted to eight research facilities including the WIV.
Sen Roger Marshall said: ‘NIH continues to act as an autonomous government agency and forego policies that strictly regulates the grant award process.
‘The agency’s lack of grant oversight and management jeopardizes the integrity of federally-funded research and leaves Americans vulnerable to dangerous pathogen outbreaks from lab accidents… we need expert investigators and auditors in a stand-alone IG office solely dedicated to overseeing this agency to ensure they are held accountable to the American people and to restore the public’s trust in the integrity of health officials to keep us safe.’
The NIH is a massive research body with over two sub-agencies that specialize in a specific area such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The latter was previously headed up by Dr Anthony Fauci, who has become an extremely controversial figure as a result of inconsistent safety guidance during the pandemic as well as evidence that he helped cover up proof bolstering the lab leak theory.
Sen Tuberville said: ‘The pandemic highlighted the great need for transparency in our government’s institutions. The National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Fauci worked, is no exception.
‘Americans deserve to have an independent oversight arm within the NIH to help ensure the agency is responsibly using our taxpayer dollars and acting in the interest of all Americans.’