A federal watchdog announced on Tuesday that it was starting a review into how the National Institutes of Health manages its grant program, an investigation that likely includes funding given to a Chinese laboratory at the center of COVID-19 questions.
Republicans have scrutinized NIH grants to EcoHealth Alliance, a scientific nonprofit that has helped fund research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The review comes amid growing questions about whether the pandemic could have begun with a leak from the lab and whether scientists there were using American money to conduct 'gain of function' experiments on viruses.
'We share stakeholders' concerns regarding compliance and oversight of NIH grant funds. We have been monitoring this issue for some time and consider it a high-priority matter that can pose a threat to the integrity of the NIH grant program,' Tesia Williams, director of communications for the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, told CNN.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has said hundreds of thousands of dollars was routed from NIH to the Wuhan Laboratory via EcoHealth Alliance. Grants like those will be part of the investigation announced Tuesday by the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General
Republicans have homed in on the relationship between Fauci and Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, as they press their theory that officials in the U.S. government tried to hide their links to research in China
Virologist Shi Zheng-li, left, works with her colleague in the P4 lab of Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province in this 2017 file picture
In recent weeks, the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic could have started in a laboratory has taken on fresh credibility.
A number of scientists have said they may have jumped too fast to concluding it emerged naturally and President Joe Biden has asked the intelligence community to 'redouble' efforts to identify its origins.
A U.S. intelligence report found that researchers at the Wuhan lab had fallen ill and been hospitalized in November 2019. Although there are no further details about their condition, they were taken ill shortly before the virus started spreading.
Meanwhile the work of EcoHealth Alliance has repeatedly been questioned by conservatives who have accused federal officials such as Dr Anthony Fauci of covering up connections to Wuhan.
Those accusations intensified when Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within NIH as well as White House adviser, confirmed that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been channeled through the nonprofit for studies on coronaviruses in bats.
'About $800,000 was allocated and about $600,000 was spent over a five-year period, no more than that,' he told a congressional budget hearing in May.
'That comes to anywhere between $125 and $150,000 per year that went to collaboration with Wuhan.'
Republicans have claimed that this was used for 'gain of function' research into viruses, tweaking their capabilities to study their characteristics.
During hearing, Sen. Rand Paul said: 'For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the U.S., has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create super-viruses.
'This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH.'
But that was denied by Fauci.
'Sen. Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely, entirely and completely incorrect,' he fired back.
'The NIH has not ever, and does not now, fund 'gain of function research' in the Wuhan Institute.'
While China has tried to insist the virus originated elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have begun to contemplate the possibility it escaped from the WIV - raising suspicions that Chinese officials simply hid evidence of the early spread
However, critics of Fauci say he cannot be certain what researchers might have used the money for, given the lack of cooperation by Chinese authorities with COVID-19 investigations.
They also seized on the recent release of his emails through a Freedom of Information Act request for ammunition.
Communications included a message from Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth, thanking Fauci for last year dismissing the idea that the COVID-19 could have come for a lab.
Details of the new investigation published by the HHS office of inspector general suggested that groups like EcoHealth, sending money overseas, would be scrutinized.
'Grantees that function as pass-through entities must monitor the activities of subrecipients, including foreign subrecipients, to ensure that subawards are used for authorized purposes in compliance with relevant laws and the terms and conditions of the subaward,' said the work plan.
'We will review NIH's monitoring of selected grants, and grantee use and management of NIH grant funds in accordance with federal requirements.'
Did coronavirus originate in Chinese government laboratory?
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been collecting numerous coronaviruses from bats ever since the SARS outbreak in 2002. They have also published papers describing how these bat viruses have interacted with human cells.
US Embassy staff visited the lab in 2018 and 'had grave safety concerns' over the protocols which were being observed at the facility.
The lab is just a few miles from the Huanan wet market which is where the first cluster of infections erupted in Wuhan.
The market is just a few hundred yards from another lab called the Wuhan Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (WHCDC). The WHCDC kept disease-ridden animals in its labs, including some 605 bats.
Those who support the theory argue that Covid-19 could have leaked from either or both of these facilities and spread to the wet market. Most argue that this would have been a virus they were studying rather than one which was engineered.
Last year a bombshell paper from the Beijing-sponsored South China University of Technology recounted how bats once attacked a researcher at the WHCDC and 'blood of bat was on his skin.'
The report says: 'Genome sequences from patients were 96% or 89% identical to the Bat CoV ZC45 coronavirus originally found in Rhinolophus affinis (intermediate horseshoe bat).'
It describes how the only native bats are found around 600 miles away from the Wuhan seafood market and that the probability of bats flying from Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces was minimal.
In addition there is little to suggest the local populace eat the bats as evidenced by testimonies of 31 residents and 28 visitors.
Instead the authors point to research being carried out within 300 yards at the WHCDC.
One of the researchers at the WHCDC described quarantining himself for two weeks after a bat's blood got on his skin, according to the report. That same man also quarantined himself after a bat urinated on him.
And he also mentions discovering a live tick from a bat - parasites known for their ability to pass infections through a host animal's blood.
'The WHCDC was also adjacent to the Union Hospital where the first group of doctors were infected during this epidemic,' the report says.
'It is plausible that the virus leaked around and some of them contaminated the initial patients in this epidemic, though solid proofs are needed in future study.'