Global crises affecting authoritarian states and concerns about animal torture are prompting Congress to look closely at U.S.-funded research in overseas laboratories and consider whether taxpayer dollars should be diverted to domestic projects.
Members of the Republican House of Representatives called on the Biden administration this month to cancel a grant that funded cat spinal cord research in state-owned laboratories in Russia, and lawmakers still have questions about how the grants were spent at the Wuhan Virology Laboratory in China. Before COVID. -19 epidemics.
Concerns about rogue regimes are built on top of bipartisan concerns about the ill-treatment of animals.
The Office of Government Accountability told The Washington Times that it had accepted a request from Congress to review the operation of 300 laboratories in 57 countries that conduct animal research from U.S. tax dollars.
According to GAO, these laboratories may not have strict animal welfare laws in effect in the United States.
GAO launched the investigation after Florida Republican Brian Mast, California Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard and more than two dozen other members of both parties requested a review last year.
“There has been a significant push among members to take NIH-funded research seriously, especially with regard to animal testing and authoritarian regimes. A number of letters have been sent and an invoice has been introduced, and I expect this to be a momentum that will continue or accelerate in the light of current events, ”said AnnMarie Graham, a spokesman for Mast. “Repetition. The Mast would support efforts to shift funding to domestic research, where taxpayers are more accountable for spending the dollar.”
The coronavirus crisis has put foreign funding for National Institutes of Health in the spotlight. Republicans said they have protracted questions about how the grant to the EcoHealth Alliance was used at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the city where the COVID-19 pandemic developed.
Lawmakers question whether U.S.-backed work qualifies for profit research to make viruses more lethal, and point to signs of reporting gaps around their research. According to NIH officials, the projects were in no way related to the virus that was destroying the world.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified scrutiny of the work of overseas laboratories, which are closely linked to governments seen as bad actors.
Representative Lisa C. McClain, a Michigan Republican, and other lawmakers demanded an early withdrawal of a grant after the White Coat Waste Project revealed that the NIH had provided more than $ 549,000 in funding to the Russian state’s Pavlov Institute of Physiology in November. The money was used in part to fund spinal cord research in cats.
Specifically, the researchers removed part of the cats ’brains and implanted electrodes in their spines. The cats were then forced to walk on a treadmill for hours while scientists studied the effect on their spinal cord.
Ms. McClain is also gathering co-sponsors for a bill filed in October to respond to growing unrest over the spending of U.S. tax dollars in authoritarian countries. Accountability in foreign animal research would prohibit the use of U.S. tax dollars to conduct or support research on vertebrate animals in foreign countries that are opponents, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela under the Maduro regime.
According to its office, four laboratories in Russia and 27 in China are actively eligible for NIH support.
“When we send U.S. tax dollars to Russia or any of our opponents, we really have no idea where these funds are going,” Ms. McClain said in a video for the White Coat Waste Project, which opposes paying taxpayers for animal experiments at home or abroad. “Look at the rules and safety [in these foreign labs]. They are no safer than a dental 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. had funded more than 700 projects in foreign countries, costing roughly $ 316 million in the 2021 budget. That was more than a decade low, with 646 foreign projects in the 2017 budget, albeit far below the extra cost. found more than 1,000 projects each fiscal year between 2012 and 2015.
“NIH-funded overseas research is on a downward trend, but there are still hundreds of projects,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for the group.
He said the list did not include grants such as remittances that went to the Wuhan laboratory through a U.S.-backed beneficiary.
Legislative assistants say some grants are flowing overseas because U.S. scientists are finding the opportunity to work with their foreign counterparts and then fund them in the United States.
In other cases, a given country may be the most prominent research location. Scientists studied coronaviruses in Chinese bat caves years before the epidemic.
The NIH defended its outflow of dollars to other nations. He said the increasingly interconnected world demands this and allows the United States to benefit from foreign discoveries.
“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 faster, as the pandemic has shown, ”the agency told The Times. “Global health research is helping to prevent and treat disease not only in other countries but also in the United States. Americans can benefit tremendously from research elsewhere. ”
According to the agency, Pedialyte, which is used to hydrate children with diarrhea or other complications, was developed by researchers in Bangladesh who have tried to fight cholera. In other cases, tropical diseases found in the United States are much more common elsewhere, making them easier to study there. There are also animals in foreign countries that suffer from diseases that suggest similar human problems. Chinese water buffalo, for example, has a strain of schistosomiasis that mimics a natural schistosoma parasite infection that occurs in humans.
The NIH also stated that its animal experiments “are undergoing a rigorous review process to assess their scientific and technical merits, including an assessment of the applicants’ plans to protect research animals ”.
“Critics will review the rationale for using animals in each study, whether research goals can be achieved using an alternative model, and interventions to minimize pain and anxiety,” the agency said.
Lawmakers are protesting against attempts they consider wasteful or harmful. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has criticized a British university project that cost $ 708,000 to study the nicotine dependence of certain fish.
“Everyone agrees that nicotine addiction is a problem. But you have to smoke more than just nicotine if you think the solution is to transport U.S. tax forints abroad to make the zebrafish addicted to nicotine, ”Mr. Paul wrote in the 2019 Festivus Report about the alleged government waste.
While global crises are spotlighting mergers with other nations, many lawmakers are specifically motivated by animal welfare concerns.
MP Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat who will retire at the end of the year, has a long history on the subject. Over the past decade, he has been at the forefront of efforts to prevent the NIH from hiring dogs from Class B traders who randomly procure animals from others instead of raising them alone.
His name is among the first signatories to a letter asking GAO to investigate NIH oversight of taxpayer-funded animal research conducted in foreign institutions.
In the letter, lawmakers said projects outside the U.S. are ultimately only subject to foreign animal welfare laws, not stricter protections that regulate projects involving primates, dogs, mice and other animals in home research.
“The apparent lack of proper oversight of foreign animal research raises serious questions about animal welfare, scientific rigor, the integrity of research, and even national security. As the NIH noted, the lack of rigor and transparency in animal research jeopardizes its value and contributes to the loss of time, money and animal life, ”the letter said.
GAO convened a panel to develop the project and met with some lawmakers who requested a review. The final report is not expected until the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
Mr. Goodman said the White Coat Waste Project is enthusiastic about further scrutiny. The letter demanding the GAO investigation was signed by both political right-wing and left-wing MPs, including Louie Gohmer, a Texas Republican, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, a non-voting member of the Liberal District of Columbia.
“We have been very encouraged to see that reducing taxpayer funding for wasteful, cruel and dangerous animal experiments in foreign laboratories is an issue that unites lawmakers across the political spectrum,” Mr Goodman said. “Whether they deal with national security or are wasteful. public expenditure, animal welfare or all of the above. “
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Representative Lisa C. McClain.
• Haris Alic contributed to this report.