E&C Republicans ask GAO to Assess if Dangers of Prospecting for Unknown Viruses Outweighs Benefits

Washington, D.C. — House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chair Morgan Griffith (R-VA), and Subcommittee on Health Chair Brett Guthrie (R-KY) today asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a scientific audit to analyze whether the dangers of prospecting for unknown viruses outweighs the benefits. 

The request comes on the heels of an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing titled Biosafety and Risky Research: Examining if Science is Outpacing Policy and Safety,” which was held on Thursday, April 27. 


“Because pandemics incur large social and economic costs, the ability to predict which viruses might lead to a pandemic would be useful for preparation. Researchers use a variety of approaches in their efforts to predict and effectively prepare for and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. Such approaches include collection and studies of viruses that may have the potential to cause pandemics.” 


“[W]hile these predictive types of programs, such as at the [National Institutes of Health] NIH and [United States Agency for International Development] USAID, have collected and identified thousands of new viruses from all over the world, their benefit to preventing pandemics is uncertain. For example, some researchers have questioned whether collecting and characterizing viruses found in animals can accurately predict those that may infect humans, or what the effect would be if and when humans are subsequently infected. Others have suggested these types of programs risk unintentional infection of field or laboratory researchers that could result in an accidental outbreak." 


  • Reports indicate that a large portion—estimated around 75 percent—of emerging infectious diseases come from nonhuman animals.   
  • To study these viruses, field work is often conducted in remote areas to collect viruses that can then be catalogued and characterized using scientific techniques, such as sequencing and culturing.  
  • For example, USAID’s former PREDICT program and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH supported the collection of samples from wildlife (e.g., bats) and the environment to identify and characterize unknown or novel viruses with the potential to infect humans. 
  • By collecting, identifying, and characterizing these viruses, researchers hope to improve their ability to predict which viruses or virus characteristics might cause a pandemic.  
  • This field work into microbial research also leads to continued studies into bacteriophage (phage) research. 

The Chairs asked for GAO to conduct a scientific audit to address the following questions:

  • What is known about whether field-based collection of virus samples from wildlife and the environment improves our ability to predict, prevent, and respond to pandemics? 
  • What federal programs across the U.S. Government support or conduct field-based virus collection from wildlife and the environment?  
  • What activities do researchers perform during field-based sample collection, transport, and laboratory characterization in order to identify viruses with pandemic potential?  
  • What are the reported outcomes of these programs?  
  • How are these outcomes reported, and to whom?  
  • What is the required timeline for reporting?  
  • Specifically, do they improve our ability to predict pandemics? 
  • What are the risks and limitations of field-based collection of virus samples? 
  • Have any of these activities resulted in the infection of research personnel or the spread of pathogens in a larger geographic area? 
  • What current regulations, policies, procedures, or other oversight govern field-based collection of virus samples to help mitigate the risks of these activities? 
  • How are unintentional outbreaks and accidental exposures reported and to whom? 
  • What is the required timeline for reporting? 
  • What approaches other than field collection of viruses may help predict future viral outbreaks, and what is known about the benefits and risks of such approaches compared to field collection? 

CLICK HERE to read the full letter to GAO.