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NIH: We Can’t Release Our Papers about the Wuhan Institute of Virology Because of a Pending Investigation

Research scientist Dan Galperin works on Purified Recombinant Zika Enveloped Protein in his laboratory at the Protein Sciences Inc. headquarters in Meriden, Conn., in 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Back on April 15, White Coat Waste, an organization that opposes government funding for medical research that involves animal experimentation, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. National Institutes of Health requesting all correspondence with State Department officials regarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology, as well as all emails, text messages, memos, and reports related to WIV.

Starting in 2014, NIH provided grants to EcoHealth Alliance; part of that group’s research included studies of viruses in bats in partnership with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. On April 19, Michael Lauer, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, wrote to EcoHealth, “There are now allegations that the current crisis was precipitated by the release from Wuhan Institute of Virology of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. Given these concerns, we are pursuing suspension of Wuhan Institute of Virology from participation in federal programs.”

Five days later, Lauer declared in a follow-up, “the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), an Institute with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has elected to terminate the project . . . NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities.”

Gorka Garcia-Malene, the FOIA officer at NIH, responded to White Coat Waste’s request on May 22:

The records you requested involve pending investigations. I have determined to withhold those records pursuant to Exemption 7(A), 5 U.S.C. § 552 and (b)(7)(a), and section 5.31 (g)(l) of the HHS FOIA Regulations, 45 CFR Part 5. Exemption 7(A) permits the withholding of investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes when disclosure could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.

In his original message, Lauer wrote, “it is in the public interest that NIH ensure that a sub-recipient has taken all appropriate precautions to prevent the release of pathogens that it is studying.” It is unclear if the NIH review is the “pending investigation” and “law enforcement proceedings” referred to in the FOIA response, or whether there is a separate U.S. criminal investigation of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The National Institutes of Health has its own police force to secure its facilities, but the Department of Health and Human Services refers violations of civil or criminal law to the Department of Justice.

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