Biden Still Supports Gain-of-Function Research Despite Potential Covid Links

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Biden administration remains supportive of gain-of-function research despite the potential risks as long as that research is pursued in a safe and transparent manner, national security council communications coordinator John Kirby explained on Monday.

The controversial practice involves making pathogens more deadly or transmissible in order to better understand current or future pandemics, and thus be able to respond faster. Funding for the research was halted in 2014 during the Obama administration due to concerns about the risks: If modified pathogens escape the laboratory setting, they can cause pandemics.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lifted that funding pause three years later after the creation of an oversight framework. In 2021, it emerged that U.S. taxpayers had funded research into bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology through an intermediary — that is, EcoHealth Alliance. The news gained new relevance last week after the Energy Department’s conclusion that the lab-leak theory of Covid’s origins is probable.

Asked by White House reporter Philip Wegmann if the rewards of gain-of-function research outweigh the risks, Kirby expressed continued support for the practice.

“[The president] believes that [the research is] important to help prevent future pandemics, which means he understands that there has to be legitimate scientific research into…the potential sources of pandemics so that we understand [them] and so we can prevent them from happening,” Kirby said.

“But he also believes…that that research has to be done, must be done in a safe and secure manner,” Kirby explained, adding that transparency is key.

Last month, a report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that “NIH did not effectively monitor or take timely action to address” EcoHealth Alliance’s compliance with reporting requirements. The OIG also concluded that the grantee had misreported $90,000 in expenses.

At first, NIH had concluded the studies in question didn’t qualify as gain-of-function research because the hybrid viruses weren’t expected to be more dangerous to mammals than the starting viruses. The agency has faulted EcoHealth Alliance for not reporting unexpected growth in some experiments.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology subaward through EcoHealth Alliance was permanently suspended in August of 2022 for compliance issues, including failure to provide NIH with laboratory notebooks related to the funded experiments.

A recent congressional spending bill bars any 2023 funding to the Institute, and the OIG’s report also recommends that it be considered for debarment from future NIH funding.

More from National Review