O&I Subcommittee Chair Griffith Opening Remarks at Hearing on Biosafety and Risky Research
Washington, D.C. — Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chair Morgan Griffith (R-VA) delivered the following opening remarks during today’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing titled “Biosafety and Risky Research: Examining if Science is Outpacing Policy and Safety.”
Excerpts and highlights below:
EXAMINING BIOSAFETY PRACTICES
“The subcommittee previously held a hearing on how to quickly identify the root cause of a disease outbreak.
“Today’s hearing will examine biosafety practices at high-containment laboratories handling dangerous pathogens.
“We will focus on addressing whether advancements in biotech have outpaced our existing biosafety guidelines. And whether or not we are following these guidelines.
“The NIH clearly did not enforce those guidelines with research being done for it by EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology into novel coronaviruses.
“Our examination of biosafety has to be informed by the real possibility that a pandemic which killed over a million Americans was the result of an incident at a laboratory that received NIH funding.”
THE ORIGINS OF COVID-19
“As I have said at past hearings, I believe the available evidence favors COVID-19 emerging due to a lab-related incident.
“My belief that COVID-19 came from a lab-leak is now shared by the Department of Energy and the FBI.
“But regardless of our individual opinions as to the origins of COVID-19, we in Congress have a responsibility to understand the potential benefits and the perils of this type of research.
“As the Committee with authorizing jurisdiction over federal biomedical research, all of us here today have a special responsibility to grapple with these issues.
“High containment biosafety labs are expensive and complex to build, maintain, and run.
“Research conducted in these laboratories involves pathogens that can cause serious, potentially life-threatening disease and, in the case of biosafety level four (BSL-4) laboratories, diseases for which no vaccine or therapy exist.
“It is crazy to me that the Wuhan Institute of Virology appears to have conducted at least some high-risk coronavirus research at a biosafety level 2 lab and did so with US dollars.
“In 2000, there were less than ten BSL-4 labs in the world. There are now 59 in operation, under construction or planned. In the United States alone, there are over 1,500 biosafety level 3 facilities.
“Rapid advances in biotechnology have opened up potential new cures and expanded our scientific knowledge.
“But this has also led to the proliferation of new technologies and research techniques that are inherently dual-use and potentially dangerous if done in inappropriate biosafety conditions.
“Balancing safety with innovation is an enduring challenge.”
THE EXISTING OVERSIGHT FRAMEWORK ISN’T WORKING
“Our existing oversight framework for risky research isn’t working.
“Whether we call it gain-of-function research or whether it’s called research with enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, I fear we have not kept pace.
“The United States doesn’t have a comprehensive regulatory system for high-containment laboratories.
“Practically speaking, the research institutions, companies, and universities that operate these facilities police themselves.
“Back in 2017, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy issued guidance, the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight framework.
“But it was intended to apply to all executive branch agencies. It has been implemented by exactly one Department, Health and Human Services.
“But, HHS has largely delegated implementation to the NIH, a funding entity who has shown a lack of significant oversight towards risky research with their grantee EcoHealth Alliance and subgrantee the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”
THE NIH’S HOSTILITY TO OUTSIDE OVERSIGHT
“As the debacle with EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology makes clear, NIH is neither inclined nor equipped to exercise oversight of the risky research it funds within the U.S. or abroad.
“NIH is not only indifferent, but reflexively hostile to outside oversight.
“NIH has stonewalled and slow-walked our document requests related to the EcoHealth Alliance grant.
“Further, how many accidents at high containment labs are unreported? There does not appear to be a government-wide effort to understand the frequency and nature of laboratory accidents.
“Since last October, NIH has not provided key information about an in-house National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases gain-of-function experiment involving a highly lethal clade of monkey pox.
“NIH won’t even tell us about its deliberations about this experiment.
“It makes me wonder what the NIH has to hide.
“How bad is it when they won’t even engage with the authorizing committee about this information?
“We have to assume there is something they don’t want us to know about, perhaps something very dangerous.
“I’ll conclude my opening remarks by noting that the highest-ranking NIH official Dr. Larry Tabak appeared before this Committee in February.
“In response to questions about NIH’s failure to enforce biosafety measures it placed on coronavirus research it funded at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Dr. Tabak testified that NIH is not an enforcement agency.
“I’m beginning to think he’s right.
“It may be time for us in Congress to relieve NIH of the burden of conducting risky research at the institutions it funds.”