FBI Opened Inquiry Into NIH Funding of Wuhan Lab, Emails Show

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An aerial view shows the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei Province on April 17, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

The Epoch Times

By Eva Fu

The FBI launched an inquiry into the National Institutes of Health’s funding of bat research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, newly released emails show.

The interest from the top U.S. domestic investigative agency adds to the international scrutiny of the Wuhan facility, which houses one of China’s highest-level biosecurity labs and has been considered a possible source of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In preparation for our call on Tuesday, Erik [Stemmy] (cc’d) has provided responses to your initial questions below (also attached),” wrote Ashley Sanders, an investigation officer at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) division of program integrity, in an email (pdf) dated May 22, 2020, with the subject “Grant Questions – FBI Inquiry,” and directed to FBI agent David Miller.

The email was obtained by government transparency watchdog Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which sought records of communications, contracts, and agreements with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

The scope of the inquiry is unclear because the rest of the email correspondence, five pages in total, is entirely redacted. But the name of the email attachment “SF 424 AI110964-06 (received date 11/05/2018),” corresponds to the NIH grant “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.”

The project in question is headed by Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, which funneled money to the lab in Wuhan. From 2014 to 2019, the New York nonprofit received six yearly grants totaling $3,748,715 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases under the NIH to fund the project, which was expected to end in 2026.

The FBI inquiry had focused on at least two of the grants, in 2014 and 2019, respectively, the email subject line suggests.

The 2014 grant aimed to “understand what factors increase the risk of the next CoV emerging in people by studying CoV diversity in a critical zoonotic reservoir (bats), at sites of high risk for emergence (wildlife markets) in an emerging disease hotspot (China),” according to the project description. Specifically, the researchers would assess the coronavirus spillover potential, develop predictive models of bat coronavirus emergence risk, and use virus infection experiments as well as “reverse genetics” to test the virus’s transmission between species.

Peter Daszak
World Health Organization team member Peter Daszak leaves his hotel after a group from WHO wrapped up its investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province on Feb. 10, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

In the project summary for the 2019 grant, EcoHealth stated that it had found that “bats in southern China harbor an extraordinary diversity of SARSr-CoVs,” and some of those viruses can “infect humanized mouse models causing SARS-like illness, and evade available therapies or vaccines.”

Recently disclosed documents show that, under one grant, the WIV had conducted an experiment that resulted in a more potent version of a bat coronavirus.

In the project that took place under the fifth grant, from June 2018 to May 2019, the researchers infected two groups of laboratory mice, one of which with a modified version of a bat coronavirus already existing in nature, and another with the original virus.

Those infected with the modified version became sicker, Lawrence Tabak, at the time a principal deputy director at the NIH, wrote in a letter in response to a congressional inquiry.

“As sometimes occurs in science, this was an unexpected result of the research, as opposed to something that the researchers set out to do,” he wrote. He acknowledged that EcoHealth had violated the grant terms by failing to notify the NIH “right away” about the finding.

wuhan lab
Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during the visit by a World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The experiment appears to fit the definition of gain-of-function research regardless of its intentions, according to some experts.

“The genetic manipulation of both MERS and the SARS conducted in Wuhan clearly constituted gain-of-function experiments,” Jonathan Latham, executive director of The Bioscience Research Project, previously told The Epoch Times. He said the NIH’s wording choice “unexpected” was “absurd,” “when clearly these experiments were expressly designed to detect increased pathogenicity.”

An April 2020 memo (pdf) reveals that the State Department assessed that a lab leak was the most likely origin of COVID-19.

“The Wuhan labs remained the most likely yet least probed. All other possible places of virus’ origin have been proven false,” the memo stated, citing circumstantial evidence such as safety standard lapses, experiments on bats by WIV researchers, and the lab’s role in a “deliberate coverup, especially destruction of any evidence of leaks and disappearance of its employees as Patient Zero.”

The FBI declined to comment to The Epoch Times.

The article has been updated with a response from the FBI.