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FAUCI Act would ban US from funding in China the medical research technique some suspect caused…

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2022-09-08
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FAUCI Act would ban US from funding in China the medical research technique some suspect caused Covid-19 pandemic

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT2)
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA)

The last time we saw a “Fauci Act,” it was when the man was impersonated on Saturday Night Live by Brad Pitt.

Context: what is gain-of-function research?

Gain-of-function research is a scientific approach in which scientists or researchers in a lab intentionally make a virus either deadlier or more easily transmitted. The intention is to study these super-viruses, to better design countermeasures ahead of time — for example, if a new virus mutation arises in the wild, which bears similarities to an artificial super-virus previously created in the lab.

Gain-of-function research so named because, as an article in The Conversation explains, “Any organism can acquire a new ability or property, or ‘gain’ a ‘function.’”

Because this is a risky research method, strict bioethics and safety protocols are supposed to be in place, to ensure that the virus never leaves the lab and enters the outside world. Yet mistakes have happened before. In fact, the last known fatality from smallpox on planet earth was a woman named Janet Parker in 1978, who died after a sample of smallpox accidentally escaped from a U.K. laboratory.

Could something similar have caused the Covid-19 pandemic?

Context: Covid-19

Likely, we’ll never know.

We do know that the virus originated in Wuhan, China in late 2019, and that a nearby laboratory called the Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting research at the time on coronaviruses.

However, many scientists instead believe the virus likely originated from the Wuhan Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which sold live animals in unsanitary conditions — including species which many scientists believe likely harbored the virus before it jumped to humans. (Chinese authorities shut the market down permanently in January 2020.)

A 2021 report by the U.S. government proved inconclusive: “the [intelligence community] remains divided on the most likely origin of Covid-19.” Why?

1978’s smallpox lab leak is known because they caught it right away, plus the lab’s director Henry Bedson confessed to his institution’s mistake. By contrast, China refused to give World Health Organization (WHO) investigators early data and blocked off the location where the virus first originated.

By now, more than two and a half years afterwards, China’s original delays and secrecy probably render it too late to ever pinpoint the virus’s origins with certainty.

Context: U.S. funding

In September 2021, the Intercept revealed that the taxpayer-funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) had provided grants that funded experiments on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018 and 2019, the two years preceding the Covid-19 outbreak.

The grant went to the U.S.-headquartered nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, which conducted the research in China. Information about the grant was unearthed through a Freedom of Information request by the Intercept.

The NIH adamantly maintains that the bat coronaviruses from 2018–19 “are not and could not have become [Covid-19] because “the sequences of the viruses are genetically very distant.”

Many Republicans claim that Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of NIAID (the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), lied to Congress about the issue. Fauci has become something of the public face of the federal government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2021, in response to a question from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), he told a Senate committee that NIH had never funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. While literally true, because the funds technically went to EcoHealth, Fauci’s statement could be considered misleading.

The debate is over whether the research they did fund in 2018–19 qualified as gain-of-function. The Washington Post feature Fact Checker said it was indeterminate: “Even now [several years later], it’s not clear.”

What the bill does

The FAUCI (Fairness and Accountability in Underwriting Chinese Institutions) Act would ban any federal funds from gain-of-function research in China.

Both chambers’ versions were introduced within a month after the NIH-Wuhan revelations. The Senate version was introduced on November 3, 2021, as S. 3159, by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA). The House version was introduced two weeks later on November 16, 2021, as H.R. 5988, by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT2).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that the risks of gain-of-function research are just too dangerous, if such a virus ever escapes from a lab — which, perhaps, it already did in 2019.

“The world is still feeling the devastating human and economic impacts from COVID-19,” Rep. Stewart said in a press release. “We need to ban U.S. taxpayer dollars from funding dangerous research in the labs of our greatest foreign adversary… These efforts aren’t about assigning blame — it’s about preventing another catastrophe and demanding justice on behalf of the American people.”

“For years, American tax dollars were funneled into Communist China, funding dangerous experiments on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Lab, while the head of the division funding those activities, Dr. Fauci, failed to tell the truth to Congress,” Sen. Ernst said in a separate press release. “We need a full accounting of how and where our tax dollars are being spent — enough is enough.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that such research as the one NIH funded in Wuhan is helpful and even necessary in humanity’s quest to get ahead of the most virulent diseases, and that such research was done in China for a very good reason.

“Why do [gain-of-function] research in collaboration with our Chinese colleagues?” Fauci rhetorically asked during a 2021 House Appropriations Committee hearing. “Well, the underlying reason for that is that we had a big scare with SARS-COV-1 back in 2002, 2003. That particular virus, unquestionably, went from a bat to an intermediate host to start an epidemic and a pandemic that resulted in 8,000 cases and close to 800 deaths. It would have been almost a dereliction of our duty if we didn’t study this.”

“And the only way you can study these things is you’ve got to go where the action is. So I often say, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, you don’t want to study bats in Fairfax County, Virginia,” Fauci continued. “So we had a modest collaboration with very respectable Chinese scientists, who are world experts on coronavirus.”

Odds of passage

In May 2021, the Senate passed a version of this legislation by voice vote as an amendment to another bill, the United States Innovation and Competition Act. The Senate passed that larger bill in June 2021, but it has not yet received a vote in the House.

As standalone legislation, the House version has attracted two cosponsors, both Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in any of four House committees: Energy and Commerce; Foreign Affairs; Oversight and Reform; or Science, Space, and Technology.

The Senate version of the standalone legislation has attracted four cosponsors, all Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A more stringent version

An even stricter variation on the FAUCI Act has also been introduced: the Viral Gain of Function Research Moratorium Act would ban any federal research grant towards gain-of-function research, whether in China or anywhere else.

It was introduced in the Senate as S. 3012 on October 19, 2021 — the same week that the NIH’s grant was originally revealed — by Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS). Attracting 10 cosponsors, all Republicans, it awaits a potential vote in the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) Committee.

Odds of passage are low in the Democratic-controlled chamber. Indeed, in August 2022, Sen. Marshall called up the bill for unanimous consent on the Senate floor, but Senate Democrats refused to give unanimous consent. This portends a likely failure if the bill received an actual roll call vote.

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This article was written by GovTrack Insider staff writer Jesse Rifkin.

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