Ernst, GOP colleagues request ban on research of pathogens having pandemic potential

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) joined several Republican colleagues in calling for an immediate government-wide pause on all studies involving enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential (ePPP).

“As the advances in biotechnology have made research exceedingly more dangerous, increased protections and regulations have become more necessary,” wrote Sen. Ernst and the four lawmakers in a Nov. 22 letter sent to Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director Arati Prabhakar. 

“The COVID-19 outbreak has been devastating,” they wrote, “and until clear ePPP research policies are implemented, it is critically important for the OSTP to immediately institute increased protections for the public from these potentially lethal pathogens.”

Specifically, the senators requested the moratorium on all ongoing and new viral Gain-of-Function (GoF) and Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) studies — when diseases are manipulated to become more deadly or infectious — in the life sciences involving all ePPP “due to the current lack of research oversight, clear guidelines, and potential risks of outbreaks from laboratory accidents,” according to their letter. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is responsible for creating and implementing U.S. government oversight policies for ePPP DURC/GOF experiments, is not inventorying its funded DURC/GOF research projects involving dangerous ePPPs, the senators wrote, citing media reports. 

This raises questions about how NIH might scrutinize ongoing projects for risk assessment review of techniques that manipulate dangerous pathogens, wrote Sen. Ernst and her colleagues, who included U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

“We are extremely troubled about the enduring culture of noncompliance at NIH and the alarming reports about their failure to properly oversee domestic and foreign-based dangerous DURC/GOF research projects, enforce grant requirements, or conduct appropriate research risk assessments of studies involving ePPPs,”  wrote the lawmakers. 

Additionally, the senators are “deeply concerned” about NIH’s failure to fully respond to congressional oversight inquiries into the bat coronavirus research that was offshored before the COVID-19 pandemic through the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China when such research was restricted by an OSTP moratorium.

“The NIH still can’t answer questions about the dangerous experiments with coronaviruses that Dr. Fauci was funding in China’s Wuhan Institute, and the agency wasn’t even aware it was sponsoring risky research enhancing coronaviruses at Boston University,” Sen. Ernst said in a Nov. 28 statement. 

“What other dangerous studies are being funded by NIH and other government agencies, and where are those occurring?” she said. “We need answers now. Until we know, and measures are put in place to guarantee safety and transparency, it is imperative that a moratorium be enacted immediately on this risky research.”