On Thursday, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (SST) Ranking Member Frank Lucas (OK-3) and Subcommittee on Research and Technology Ranking Member Mike Waltz (FL-6) sent a joint letter to White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) Director Eric Lander requesting information on OSTP’s role in President Biden’s review of the COVID-19 origins and the OSTP’s plans for reviewing Gain-of-Function (GOF) research across federal research agencies. The Subcommittee on Research and Technology has oversight judication over OSTP. 

“Gain-of-Function research that can increase the contagion or strength of a virus must be very closely monitored,” Lucas said. “This is especially urgent given the potential origins of COVID-19. OSTP plays a critical role in providing guidance to agencies that grant federal research funds, both here and abroad. We need to know about the risk analysis, guidance, and safeguards in place around previous grants, and OSTP’s plans going forward. We’re expecting a detailed briefing that covers specific information about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as well as the comprehensive procedures at OSTP.”

“OSTP was the office that directed the pause of Gain-of-Function research across federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, in 2014,” said Waltz. “Despite the biosafety concerns that lead to the pause, Gain-of-Function research resumed in 2017. The American people deserve a government-wide review of these decisions and taxpayer-funded research in the People’s Republic of China.”

In the letter, Reps. Waltz and Lucas highlight OSTP’s guidance to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) on GOF. In 2014, OSTP directed a “pause” and risk assessment of GOF that referenced ‘incidents’ related to biosafety and biosecurity. The “pause” applied to GOF research related to “research projects that may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.”

Though there was a pause in federal GOF research due to perceived risk, HHS issued the ‘Framework for Guiding Funding Decisions about Proposed Research involving Enhanced Potential Pandemic Pathogens” in December 2017 and as a result, NIH lifted the pause of GOF research. 

The letter also points to the $598,500 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that went to EconoHealth to study bat coronavirus emergence at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Subsequently, that grant was reauthorized for $3.7 million over five years in 2019. 

This information raises more questions about OTSP’s role in providing guidance on GOF research.

As a result, Reps. Waltz and Lucas sent the following questions to Director Lander: 

  • President Biden has directly tasked the Intelligence Community with the 90-day review, what is OSTP’s role in the review?

  • Considering OSTP advises the President on scientific aspects of national security, how is OSTP coordinating with other agencies to review the merit, safety, and security of USG research at WIV?

  • Does OSTP plan to review policies and procedures that lead to resumption of GOF research?

  • Does OSTP plan to conduct a new risk analysis of GOF research?

  • Does OSTP plan to review all GOF science or research grants or subgrants issued between 2014 and today?

  • Is OSTP reviewing federal grants or subgrants to Wuhan Institute of Virology and other Chinese laboratories between 2015 and 2019?

  • Will OSTP review the process by which NASBB and NAS conducted a risk assessment on GOF research, and the conclusions reached that lead to a resumption?

The full letter is available here.