Two Republican legislators expressed safety concerns over a new research project to detect emerging infectious diseases led by Washington State University and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Kentucky Rep. James Comer, ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall sent a letter Friday to USAID Administrator Samantha Power asking what measures are in place to prevent the researchers “from potentially creating another pandemic.”
The $125 million project with USAID, announced Oct. 5 in WSU Insider, hopes to safely detect unknown viruses with the potential to spill over from animals to humans. The lead principal investigator for the project, Felix Lankester, is an associate professor at WSU’s School for Global Health.
“To make sure the world is better prepared for these infectious disease events, which are likely to happen more frequently as wild areas become increasingly fragmented, we need to be ready,” Lankester stated in the news release.
Over the course of five years, the researchers plan to collaborate with as many as 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to uncover zoonotic diseases from three viral families, including coronaviruses, filoviruses and paramyxoviruses, in environments they say are ripe for spillover.
Zoonotic diseases are very common in the U.S. and around the world, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists estimate that three out of every four emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.
While the lawmakers’ letter makes a reference to gain-of-function research, the project between WSU and USAID will perform what’s called functional analysis, according to Tom Kawula, director of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“People want to talk about gain-of-function experiments,” Kawula said in an Oct. 13 interview with the Daily News. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what gain-of-function experiments are. We’re doing functional analysis.”
Gain-of-function research, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, studies biosecurity by enhancing a pathogen’s ability to cause disease.
Kawula said WSU and USAID’s project will instead develop methods of predicting when a virus has the potential to cause disease outbreak. Even with the scrutiny it brings, he says it’s great the rest of the world is interested in the research.
“The idea is to be more predictive, not just to find more viruses and what they are,” he said. “We want to be very transparent about what we’re doing.”
Kawula did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment from the Daily News on Friday.
When reached for comment, Rep. Comer noted in an email his concerns about taxpayers funding the “risky research.” He said Congress must ensure funds are allocated appropriately.
“We know U.S. taxpayer funds were used to conduct dangerous gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab,” Rep. Comer stated. “Through USAID’s new research agreement, Americans are once again funding dangerous viral research abroad, potentially in China.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor at the White House, has repeatedly testified to Congress that the U.S. government has not funded gain-of-function research.
To better understand the research agreement between WSU and USAID, the lawmakers requested a staff-level briefing focused on laboratory security and international partners be prepared no later than Nov. 29.
Sen. Marshall was unavailable for comment.
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