Senators on a key Homeland Security Subcommittee argued for an expansive review of gain-of-function research, which opponents argue may have created the COVID-19 virus, during a first-ever hearing Wednesday.
Gain-of-function research is broadly defined as any research or experimentation that can make a virus or disease more transmissible or deadly. President Barack Obama imposed a moratorium on such activity in 2014, but President Donald Trump lifted the ban in 2017. Although Trump instituted a committee within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review gain-of-function research proposals, critics like Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul argue that the body is effectively toothless.
Paul, the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight, said in opening remarks that the hearing was necessary due to “the emerging threat posed by gain-of-function research.” Paul described the method as “controversial,” noting that it has the “potential to unleash a global pandemic that threatens the lives of millions.”
The HHS Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research Involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens (P3CO) employs too limited a definition of gain-of-function research to provide effective oversight of proposals, participating GOP senators and all three testifying scientists agreed. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Dr. Anthony Fauci has argued that under the P3CO framework, the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not engage in gain-of-function research.
“In response to a congressional inquiry from October 2021, just last year, the NIH [National Institutes of Health] attempted to walk back the assertions by NIH Director [Francis] Collins and Fauci that NIH had not funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan, you commented at the time, saying, ‘NIH, specifically Collins, Fauci, and [Lawrence] Tabak lied to Congress, lied to the press, and lied to the public knowingly, willfully, brazenly,'” Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said during an exchange with Rutgers University molecular biologist Dr. Richard Ebright.
“The statements made on repeated occasions to the public, to the press and to policymakers by the NIAID director, Dr. Fauci, have been untruthful. I do not understand why those statements are being made because they are demonstrably false,” Ebright responded. (RELATED: Renowned Molecular Biologist Accuses Fauci Of Lying To Congress About Gain-Of-Function Research)
First witness @R_H_Ebright from @RutgersU testifying remotely: offering broader definition of GoF than is in the P3CO framework, says new threats “might not have come to exist by natural means for tens,
hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of years.”
— Michael Ginsberg (@mikeginsberg98) August 3, 2022
“The P3CO board does not mandate compliance. If the P3CO committee makes a decision that the research may not proceed, that decision is only advisory to the funding agency,” Ebright added.
Republican Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall highlighted Fauci’s previous positions on gain-of-function research, noting that President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser felt more ambivalent about the practice less than two decades ago.
“In 2012, those two scientists and 39 others implemented a voluntary gain-of-function research pause on influenza experiments. In early 2012, Dr. Fauci discouraged all influenza gain-of-function and said, ‘It’s essential that we respect the concern of the public domestically or globally, and not ask them to take the word of the influenza scientists,'” Marshall said.
“Again in 2012, Dr. Fauci also said, almost prophetically, that he worried about unregulated laboratories, perhaps outside of the U.S., doing work sloppily and leading to an inadvertent pandemic. And he went on to say, ‘The accidental release is what the world is really worried about,'” Marshall quoted Fauci.
Paul said during the hearing that he looked forward to introducing bipartisan legislation addressing gain-of-function funding. Five Republicans, but no Democrats, participated in the hearing. Paul told reporters that he hopes legislation creating an independent committee reviewing funding could be an area of agreement for Republicans and Democrats. HHS does not disclose the members of the P3CO review board, and senators expressed concern that the members could themselves be receiving funding for projects.
“We got agreement to do the hearing from the majority, from Sen. Hassan,” Paul said, agreeing that he was discouraged by the lack of Democrat participation. “But we were disappointed. I tried to run it objectively, and not make it a partisan hearing, and to try to talk about bipartisan ways we could fix it. Our witnesses, none of them are partisans that I know of. I know of none of their politics. I don’t think any of them are partisans.”