DOD Inspector General Not Sure If We Spent $50 Million in Chinese Labs for Gain-of-Function Research

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The Department of Defense Inspector General's Office has found that the US military can't tell how much money it gave to Chinese bio labs or what research it funded. More troubling is that the only evidence that US funds were not involved in gain-of-function-type research are the representations by military officials that it did not happen...and that is totally reliable.

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Under the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2024, the DODIG was required to "report on the amount of Federal funds awarded by the DoD, directly or indirectly, through grants, contracts, subgrants, subcontracts, or any other type of agreement or collaboration, to Chinese research labs or to fund research or experiments in China or other foreign countries that could have reasonably resulted in the enhancement of pathogens of pandemic potential, from 2014 through 2023."

This audit was driven by information provided by Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) showing that some $50 million in US funds had found its way to Chinese biolabs.

The audit covers any US taxpayer funding “used to fund research or experiments that could have reasonably resulted in the enhancement of any coronavirus, influenza, Nipah, Ebola, or other pathogen of pandemic potential or chimeric versions of such a virus or pathogen in the People’s Republic of China or any other foreign country” — money which Ernst accused the Pentagon of “blindly giving away.”

“The Department of Defense should defend the nation, not support research with the potential to do us harm,” she told The Post in a statement.

“While bureaucrats are blindly giving away taxpayer funds, China doesn’t even have to steal our research,” Ernst added. “It’s clear Americans deserve a detailed inventory of all the dangerous dollars sent overseas, which is why I’ve launched an investigation to track down every cent.”

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The Pentagon announced the results on Thursday. (Read the whole report.)

The first difficulty the IG's investigators encountered was determining whether or how much money was spent on the research.

We found significant limitations with the adequacy of data, similar to the observations the GAO found in its reports.  Specifically, the DoD did not track funding at the level of detail necessary to determine whether the DoD provided funding to Chinese research laboratories or other foreign countries for research related to enhancement of pathogens of pandemic potential [author's italics].  In addition, DoD organizations did not have visibility of subaward information throughout the life of contracts and grants.  In addition, except for the CDMRP electronic grants system, DoD organizations could not effectively search award systems to identify all contracts, subcontracts, grants, and subgrants that may have been related to pathogen research performed by China and other foreign countries.  As a result, DoD organizations could not produce a complete population of pathogen research grants and subawards necessary for us to conclude on the use of DoD funds provided for pathogen research.

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Even more troubling was the level of proof used to determine none of the money had been used on prohibited research.

In response to our meetings and data requests, U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC) officials self-identified seven CDMRP awards, subawards, or fee-for-service agreements that involved potential enhancement of pathogens in foreign countries.  However, the officials also stated that the research does not necessarily enhance the virus for pathogenic potential.  For example, the research involved modification of a virus to infect a rodent versus a human or combining genetic sequences to produce a protein to develop antibodies to study immune response.  USAMRDC officials further stated that these procedures are not strengthening the virus.  We did not receive any information during our review that contradicted the statements from USAMRDC officials.  

...

In addition, the USAMRDC identified five other awards that included Chinese entities in the research of pathogens; however, the research did not involve pathogen enhancement and none of these entities were specifically mentioned in section 252 of the FY 2024 NDAA.   Figure 2 and Table 3 provide details about those awards.

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If "I didn't do it" is the level of proof required to establish innocence, we should just shut down the criminal justice system today.

The bottom line is that we did spend about $50 million on questionable biomedical research, but we don't really know who, exactly, got the money or what they did with it, but everyone involved said nothing illegal happened. Cool. Next case.

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