EcoHealth Alliance Statement Correcting Inaccuracies in CBS News Reporting of NIH and USAID Grant for Research in China
March 13 2023 – We are writing to comment on the reports on CBS News today by Catherine Herridge and Analisa Novak: “Following the money to Wuhan labs: Records show organizations double billing U.S. government” (https://www.cbsnews.com/video/following-the-money-to-wuhan-labs-records-show-organizations-double-billing-us-government/#x & https://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-government-agencies-may-have-been-double-billed-projects-wuhan-china-records-indicate-probe/).
Their breathless and sensationalist tone, recounting alleged “double billing” and fraud in U.S. government grants for research in China, based on unsupported allegations by Diane Cutler, may attract viewers and readers. There is only one problem – they are not true. CBS News has drawn only part of the picture, and in following the partisan interpretation offered by Senator Roger Marshall, have mislead their viewers and readers.
Although Ms. Herridge and Ms. Novak do not mention EcoHealth Alliance’s work in China by name, we are clearly the target of this flawed reporting, since we were the only U.S. entity known to be funded by both USAID and NIH for work with Wuhan research institutes. The story is based on allegations by Ms. Cutler, and the reporters cite further unnamed “sources familiar with the grant records [who] did not dispute CBS News’ reporting.” However, no one from CBS News asked EcoHealth Alliance about the grants in question: we could easily have corrected the record.
CBS News was correct in noting that both USAID and NIH funded work in China via EcoHealth Alliance. But the conclusions they drew were incorrect. Herridge and Novak make three claims, each of which is flawed, based on what the grant records actually show:
1. They claim, following Cutler, that there is “potential evidence” of double billing and “potential theft of government funds.” This is simply not true. USAID and NIH supported two different projects that are complementary, but distinct, and do not involve duplication of effort. When a proposal is flagged for funding by a US government agency, there is an interagency review prior to the award being made, to make sure that there is no duplication of effort. We were told by agency staff that these reviews had occurred for these two lines of funding and that they concluded there was no duplication of effort.
Herridge and Novak in their investigation also neglected to mention that the U. S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recently conducted an analysis of US federal funding of projects in China that includes an assessment of the distinctions between the work under these different projects. Had the reporters contacted us for comment, we would have made them aware of this oversight work. EcoHealth Alliance submitted a full description of the specific lines of work conducted under these two projects to the GAO, and this will be reported by them when the report is released over the next few weeks.
The distinctions between the NIH and USAID funding are based on the two agencies’ differential goals of research and capacity building, respectively. The NIH funding (R01AI110964) was specifically focused on the discovery and lab characterization of SARS-related coronaviruses in China. The USAID funding (PREDICT) was for One Health development and capacity building work to help strengthen China’s capacity to prevent outbreaks and pandemics (and therefore protect the USA from outbreaks that spread). The USAID work also involved One Health surveillance on a wide range of viruses in human, livestock and wildlife (bats, primates, rodents) samples.
Each project had budget set aside for travel, fieldwork, meetings, lab work, consumables, and other categories. The CBS News story showed images of budget costs for lab supplies and insinuated that because medical equipment, supplies, travel, and salaries were paid for under the two different projects, that is indicative of double-billing. This is not true, and just reflects misinterpretation of the grant records. The interviewee’s statement that “What I’ve found so far is evidence that points to double-billing, potential theft of government funds” is also unsubstantiated by evidence. Again, the work conducted under these two separate lines of funding was assessed for potential duplication of effort and approved following joint U.S. government agency review, then reported on annually by the grantee, reviewed by the NIH and by USAID, and deemed appropriate and correct. It was also audited independently each year, with no issues identified.
2. The story also fails in the way it reports the science being conducted. Herridge and Novak do not correct or question the interviewee’s comment that the research involved “dangerous pathogens and risky research”. In fact, the SARS-related research concerned work on bat coronaviruses, none of which have been shown to infect people. Furthermore, the work funded by both agencies was not risky, but enabled public health measures, including building better surveillance programs, helping to test anti-COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, and identifying the cause of livestock die-offs that have the potential to decimate US pork production, among many other benefits.
3. Herridge and Novak also claim “that tens of millions of dollars could be involved.” But as the forthcoming GAO report will show, the total amount of grant funding from NIH and USAID to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for the projects in question from 2014 to 2021 amounted to less than $1.3 million – a fraction of the amount claimed by CBS News.
For these reasons, the CBS News story cannot be relied upon, and we have asked CBS News either to retract it or to issue a clarification. The title of the story is factually incorrect, and both that and the content of the story are significantly flawed. The story is already being picked up by other media outlets, and is spreading misinformation. This is hardly the news standard that viewers and readers expect of CBS News.