Senate Advances Legislation Prohibiting Funding for State-Run Labs in China

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Outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, February 3, 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday advanced legislation that would prohibit taxpayer funding for state-run labs in China, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as well as federal money for gain-of-function experimentation in China.

The restrictions were approved in a bipartisan voice vote as two amendments to be included in the Endless Frontier Act, which aims to counter Chinese economic and geopolitical ambitions.

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Senators Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), Roger Marshall (R., Kan.), and Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) introduced the amendment to permanently ban federal funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where scientists performed gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses. Gain-of-function research involves making viruses more infectious and/or deadly.

The EcoHealth Alliance diverted $600,000 in grants from the National Institutes of Health to the WIV in the form of subgrants from 2014 through 2019, for the purpose of studying bat coronaviruses.

The WIV is at the center of the theory that the novel coronavirus could have leaked from a lab. 

On Sunday, a Wall Street Journal report revealed that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in November 2019, around the time that COVID-19 may have begun spreading in Wuhan, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. One intelligence official warned that the report needed additional verification, while another said it was significant.

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The report calls into question the timeline China has given for the emergence of the virus, since Beijing claimed that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was recorded on December 8, 2019, in Wuhan.

China has repeatedly denied that the illness escaped from the lab. However, scientists around the world have expressed concern that the lab-leak theory has not been properly investigated, given the limitations placed on investigators by Beijing; the WIV has refused to share data logs and other records for an investigation into a potential lab leak.

“After COVID appeared in the vicinity of the Wuhan Institute, instead of cooperating . . . to discover the source of the outbreak, Chinese officials instead ordered the destruction of some of the coronavirus samples and blocked access to the lab,” Ernst said on the Senate floor.

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“My amendment would ensure not another dime of taxpayer dollars goes, spent subsidizing communist China,” she said. 

Meanwhile, a second amendment introduced by Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) prohibits U.S. taxpayer funding for any gain-of-function experimentation in China.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said the Senate will finish work on the Endless Frontier Act this week. The legislation has bipartisan support, though it will take time for lawmakers to work through a slate of amendments that have been proposed.

“We’ve been so bipartisan. I haven’t seen anything like it in all the years that McConnell was leader, where we have been so open to the process,” Schumer said of the effort to craft the act. 

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