- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Global crises involving authoritarian states and concerns about animal cruelty are prompting Congress to scrutinize U.S.-funded research at labs overseas and mull whether taxpayer dollars should be redirected toward projects at home.

Republican House members this month told the Biden administration to cancel a grant that funded spinal research on cats at state-owned labs in Russia, and lawmakers still have questions about how grant funding was spent at a virology lab in Wuhan, China, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerns about rogue regimes are layered on top of bipartisan concern about the mistreatment of animals.

The Government Accountability Office told The Washington Times that it accepted a request from Congress to review operations at 300 labs in 57 countries that conduct animal research with U.S. tax dollars.

Those labs may not have the rigorous laws governing animal welfare that are in place in the U.S., the GAO said.

The GAO launched the investigation after Rep. Brian Mast, Florida Republican, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, California Democrat, and more than two dozen other members from both parties asked for the review last year.

“There’s been a notable push among members to take a serious look at the research NIH is funding, particularly as it relates to animal testing and authoritarian regimes. There have been multiple letters sent and bills introduced, and I would expect that this is a push that’ll continue or ramp up in light of current events,” Mast spokeswoman AnnMarie Graham said. “Rep. Mast would support efforts to shift funding to domestic research where there can be more accountability to taxpayers on how the dollars are spent.”

The coronavirus crisis thrust a spotlight onto funding abroad from the National Institutes of Health. Republicans said they have lingering questions about how a subgrant awarded to EcoHealth Alliance was used at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is in the city where the COVID-19 pandemic originated.

The lawmakers question whether the work performed with U.S. backing amounts to gain-of-function research that could make viruses more deadly, and they point to signs of reporting lapses around their research. NIH officials say there is no way the projects were related to the virus that has devastated the world.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensified scrutiny of work in overseas labs with close ties to governments that are considered bad actors.

Rep. Lisa C. McClain, Michigan Republican, and other lawmakers demanded the early cancellation of a grant after the White Coat Waste Project revealed that the NIH provided more than $549,000 in funding to Russia’s state-run Pavlov Institute of Physiology in November. The money, in part, went to fund spinal cord research on cats.

Specifically, researchers removed a portion of the cats’ brains and implanted electrodes in their spines. The cats were then forced to walk on treadmills for hours on end while scientists studied the impact on their spinal cords.

Ms. McClain is also gathering co-sponsors for a bill she filed in October to respond to growing unease with spending U.S. tax dollars in countries with authoritarian tendencies. The Accountability in Foreign Animal Research Act would prohibit U.S. tax dollars from being used to conduct or support research on vertebrate animals in foreign countries that are considered adversaries, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela under the Maduro regime. 

Her office said four labs in Russia and 27 labs in China are actively eligible to receive NIH funding.

“When we send U.S. tax dollars over to Russia or any of our adversaries, for that matter, we truly don’t have any idea where those funds are going,” Ms. McClain said in a video for the White Coat Waste Project, which opposes forcing taxpayers to pay for animal experiments at home or abroad. “Look at the regulations and the security [in these foreign labs]. They’re no more secure than a dentist’s office.”

The NIH maintains a web-based database of grant awards by location and organization at https://report.nih.gov/award/index.cfm.

The White Coat Waste Project searched the database and estimated that the U.S. was funding more than 700 projects in foreign nations costing roughly $316 million in fiscal 2021. That was up from a decade low of 646 foreign projects in fiscal 2017, though far below the more than 1,000 projects it found in each fiscal year from 2012 through 2015.

“There is definitely a downward trend in NIH-funded research overseas, but there are still hundreds of projects,” said Justin Goodman, the group’s spokesman.

He said the list doesn’t include subgrants, such as pass-through money that went to the Wuhan lab through the U.S.-backed grantee.

Legislative aides say some grants flow overseas because American scientists find opportunities to work with colleagues abroad and then tap into funding streams in the U.S.

In other cases, a specific country might have the most salient spot for research. Scientists were studying coronaviruses in bat caves in China for years before the pandemic.

The NIH defended its outflow of dollars to other nations. It said an increasingly interconnected world demands it and allows the U.S. to benefit from discoveries abroad.

“We know now more than ever that diseases do not respect borders. Globalization has increased the movement of people and products around the world so diseases can spread more quickly, as the pandemic has demonstrated,” the agency told The Times. “Global health research helps prevent and treat diseases not only in other countries but in the United States as well. Americans can benefit enormously from research that has taken place elsewhere.”

The agency said Pedialyte, a product used to hydrate children when they have diarrhea or other complications, was developed by researchers in Bangladesh who were trying to combat cholera. Other times, tropical diseases found in the U.S. are far more common in other places, so it is easier to study them there. Foreign nations also have concentrations of animals with diseases that are representative of similar problems in humans. The Chinese water buffalo, for instance, has a strain of schistosomiasis that mimics the natural schistosome parasite infection in humans.

The NIH also said its animal experiments go through a “rigorous review process to assess their scientific and technical merit, which includes an assessment of the applicants’ plans for the protection of research animals.”

“Reviewers examine the justification for using animals in each study, whether the research goals can be accomplished using an alternative model, and interventions to minimize pain and distress,” the agency said.

Lawmakers object to experiments they consider to be wasteful or harmful. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, has criticized a British university project that cost $708,000 to study nicotine addiction in specific fish.

“Everybody agrees that nicotine addiction is a problem. But you have to be smoking something other than nicotine if you think the solution is to ship American tax dollars abroad to addict zebrafish to nicotine,” Mr. Paul wrote in his 2019 “Festivus Report” on perceived government waste.

While global crises cast a spotlight on entanglements with other nations, many lawmakers are expressly motivated by concerns about animal welfare.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat who is retiring at the end of this year, has a long track record on the subject. During the past decade, she has spearheaded efforts to get NIH to stop sourcing dogs from “Class B” dealers who obtain the animals randomly from others instead of raising them on their own.

Her name appears first among signatories of the letter that pressed the GAO to scrutinize the NIH’s oversight of taxpayer-funded animal research at foreign institutions. 

In the letter, lawmakers said projects outside the U.S. are ultimately subject only to foreign animal welfare laws rather than more rigorous protections that govern projects involving primates, dogs, mice and other animals in research at home.

“The apparent lack of adequate oversight of foreign animal research raises serious questions about animal welfare, scientific rigor, research integrity and even national security. As the NIH has noted, a lack of rigor and transparency in animal research compromises its value and contributes to wasted time, money and animals’ lives,” they wrote in the letter.

The GAO pulled together a panel to work on the project and met with some lawmakers who requested the review. The final report is not expected until late this year or early next year.

Mr. Goodman said the White Coat Waste Project is enthusiastic about the added scrutiny. The letter demanding a GAO investigation was signed by lawmakers on both the political right and left, including Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting member from the liberal District of Columbia.

“We’ve been very encouraged to see that cutting taxpayer funding for wasteful, cruel and dangerous animal experiments in foreign labs is an issue that unites lawmakers across the political spectrum,” Mr. Goodman said, “whether their concern is national security, wasteful government spending, animal welfare or all of the above.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Rep. Lisa C. McClain.

• Haris Alic contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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