In a major development, Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), acknowledged to Congress on Thursday that US taxpayers had funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the years leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic.

During a hearing of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, Rep Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) questioned Tabak about whether the NIH had supported gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute through the Manhattan-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. Tabak responded, “It depends on your definition of gain-of-function research. If you’re speaking about the generic term, yes, we did.”

This admission follows over four years of evasions from federal health officials, including Tabak and former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director Dr Anthony Fauci, regarding the controversial research practice that enhances viruses to make them more transmissible.

Tabak explained that such research is widespread and unregulated because it supposedly poses no threat. However, Dr Bryce Nickels, a genetics professor at Rutgers University and co-founder of the pandemic oversight group Biosafety Now, criticised Tabak’s testimony as evasive and unaccountable.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) barred the Wuhan Institute of Virology from receiving federal grants for 10 years as of July 2023. Additionally, EcoHealth Alliance had all its grant funding pulled for the next three years.

EcoHealth Alliance president Dr Peter Daszak previously testified that his organisation did not engage in gain-of-function research, a claim contradicted by his private correspondence and testimony from leading coronavirologist Dr Ralph Baric.

In an October 2021 letter to Congress, Tabak admitted that NIH funded a limited experiment at the Wuhan Institute that tested whether spike proteins from bat coronaviruses could bind to human receptors in a mouse model, but he did not label it as gain-of-function research. However, he disclosed that EcoHealth had failed to report significant modifications that made the viruses more infectious.

The NIH removed its definition of gain-of-function research from its website the same day Tabak’s letter was sent. Meanwhile, Fauci has consistently denied that the Wuhan lab research involved gain-of-function experiments, often clashing with Republicans over the definition.

In recent hearings, it was revealed that EcoHealth Alliance received substantial funding for research with the Wuhan Institute, which has drawn scrutiny for its potential links to the origins of the pandemic. The House subcommittee continues to investigate whether Covid-19 might have leaked from the Wuhan lab.

Thursday’s hearing underscored the need for stricter oversight of high-risk pathogen research, with Nickels highlighting the dangers of self-regulation among scientists. Fauci is scheduled to address questions about the gain-of-function research and the origins of the pandemic in a public hearing on June 3.

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