Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, February 23, 2023
NIH Testifies at Oversight Hearing on Federal Response to COVID-19

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, Oversight and Investigations (O&I) Subcommittee and Health Subcommittee held a joint hearing on February 10 to hear from witnesses about the federal response to COVID-19. Witnesses included Lawrence Tabak, senior official performing the duties of the director at National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with senior leaders from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), chair of O&I, began the hearing stating that more than 1 million Americans have died from COVID-19 which brought the country to a standstill and cost our economy $15 trillion. He said schools were closed far too long and children experienced learning setbacks as well as damage to their social,
emotional, and physical well-being.

During the hearing, he noted that many of the questions that would be brought up are due to a lack of response to Congressional inquiries regarding COVID-19. He specifically cited NIH’s failure to answer questions about the lack of
compliance and oversight into grant awards to EcoHealth Alliance and their subaward grants to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, specifically for coronavirus research.

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), chair of the Health subcommittee, said in his opening statement that there was little to no visibility into nor input on the administration's pandemic response and he wanted to see reform that would make us better prepared for pandemics and other public health security threats in the future—especially with public trust in our public health institutions at a low driven by misguided and inconsistent preparation for and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He cited the CDC’s stumble in rolling out testing kits, the FDA’s delay to authorize diagnostics, and a strategic national stockpile that was not adequately equipped. He also referenced NIH's refusal to acknowledge any suggestion that the COVID-19 virus may have traveled from nature to a lab to humans, which continues to fuel the controversy and questions around it.

The chair of the full committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), said, “The questions that we're asking here today are the questions that we hear from people in our communities every day.” She also expressed her diminished support for NIH due to its overall lack of responsiveness, the suppression of dissenting voices in the COVID origins investigation, and the frequent mixed messaging on health precautions. She pressed for answers about the kind of research NIH is funding and said NIH’s cooperation was abysmal.

Tabak’s opening remarks made it clear that biomedical research supported by NIH enabled the rapid development of life-saving vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for COVID and that NIH was leveraging what it learned from this pandemic to prepare for future threats. He reminded committee members that there were shots in arms in less than one year, a record time for vaccine development. However, this was possible because of the decades of research by thousands of scientists. 

He also stressed the role NIH is playing in the administration's national biodefense strategy. One way was by developing the next generation COVID-19 vaccines, including a nasal spray or mucosal vaccine that could do a better job of preventing infection and transmission of SARS-CoV-2. In addition, NIH is working on pan coronavirus vaccines designed to provide broad protective immunity against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants, as well as other coronaviruses with pandemic potential. NIH is also trying to shorten the timeline between a newly emerging pathogen and development of life-saving products by studying prototype viruses within other viral families that have the potential to cause significant disease.

In response to questions and officials’ answers, Tabak said NIH would fully comply with the committee’s requests, including preservation of evidence related to COVID. He was also asked why NIH had given a new grant to EcoHealth Alliance in September of 2022 when it had already breached its contract with the NIH and failed to comply with important reporting requirements. He said the grantee had been advised of these deficiencies and was working to correct them. When asked about NIH’s power over a grantee, Tabak said NIH is unable to disbar an organization since that rests with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH was also encouraged to put financial penalties in their grant documents to ensure compliance, which NIH acknowledged it would consider.

When discussions around enhanced pandemic potential pathogens or ePPP research came up, NIH said it did not fund ePPP research in foreign countries except for an influenza experiment in the Netherlands which was many years ago. There are no future plans to do this type of research. Tabak also said the most important point to appreciate is that the viruses that were under study in Ecohealth’s subproject bear no relationship to SARS-CoV-2 because they are genetically distinct. In fact, he noted they are absolutely unrelated to SARS-CoV-2. One can look at the genetic sequence and see how distant the sequences of the bat viruses were to the actual SARS-CoV-2, he testified. 

Further scrutiny of the origins of the pandemic is being sought along with classified briefings from intelligence agencies. The new Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic seeks to bring more emphasis to theories that the spread of COVID-19 originated out of laboratory experiments in Wuhan, China, possibly backed by U.S. money. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was told by House Republicans that he would be contacted to schedule a transcribed interview to further their investigations.