Stop Giving Foreign Animal Labs a Free Pass | Opinion

Stop Giving Foreign Animal Labs a Free Pass | Opinion

Any time the United States is funding something overseas, it needs to be met with strict oversight to ensure accountability, transparency, and accordance of U.S. law. Unfortunately, it has come to light that this is not at all the case for overseas projects captained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A legally-questionable and dangerous loophole has allowed the NIH to ship billions of taxpayers’ dollars to risky and inhumane animal testing laboratories in foreign countries—including China and Russia—with absolutely no oversight.

It is abhorrent and categorically dangerous to not only outsource animal testing overseas to countries that don’t have civilized testing regulations, but to do so with two of the United States’ most hostile adversaries.

That is exactly why we’re working together to pass the bipartisan Worldwide Animal Testing Compliance and Harmonization Act, otherwise known as the WATCH Act, to close this reckless NIH foreign lab loophole and protect public health, tax dollars, and animal welfare.

Long-standing U.S. federal law clearly states that all animal testing labs receiving NIH funding must undergo inspections, keep detailed records, and report animal welfare and biosafety violations. These labs must also maintain oversight committees that review, approve, and monitor all animal experiments to ensure compliance with the law, prevent animal abuse, and avoid wasteful spending on unnecessary projects.

However, the NIH has quietly been avoiding these federal laws by conducting animal testing in foreign countries that are completely exempt from all oversight required of animal labs here at home.

The worst-case scenario of this oversight blind spot came to a head in Wuhan, China in late 2019 and led to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci‘s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) sent taxpayer dollars to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for outrageously risky gain-of-function experiments on “humanized mice”—which would have violated federal law in the U.S.–and made bat coronaviruses more contagious and deadly to humans.

Wuhan lab
Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit to the institute in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on February 3, 2021.
HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Officials from the State Department and other agencies had warned for years that the Wuhan lab was doing dangerous coronavirus research and was ill-equipped to prevent an accident or misuse of research for military purposes. Nevertheless, Fauci repeatedly ignored the warnings, never investigated, and kept the money flowing. Now, it is widely believed–including by the FBI and Energy Department–that this perilous, NIH-funded animal lab is what sparked the COVID pandemic.

Unfortunately, the Wuhan lab isn’t the start nor the end to this madness. The NIH currently authorizes 348 animal labs in 54 foreign countries to receive taxpayer dollars specifically for animal experiments. The NIH’s list includes dozens of animal labs in China, even some with links to the Chinese Communist Party, and it’s still giving Wuhan lab collaborator EcoHealth Alliance millions of tax dollars for virus-hunting, bat round-ups, and lab animal experiments abroad. Not only is this an incredibly inhumane way to put animals at risk, avoid U.S. law, and disregard transparency, but it is also an egregious misuse of Americans’ tax dollars.

Altogether, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit released earlier this year found that the NIH sent $2.2 billion from 2011 to 2021 to 200 different foreign labs in 44 countries. The GAO also found that Dr. Fauci’s NIAID was responsible for over three-quarters of the NIH’s wasteful spending in overseas animal labs. It is impossible to overstate the significance of bringing accountability and transparency to this outright avoidance of the law and blatantly wasteful spending.

The GAO confirmed that NIH does not require foreign animal labs to abide by U.S. laws and policies and that it has never inspected a foreign animal lab in its 38-plus years of oversight authority. The NIH does not even require foreign animal labs to report abuses and violations and has no system to verify the accuracy of any information received from foreign animal labs.

The WATCH Act would, among other things, require U.S. funded-foreign labs to undergo quarterly inspections, establish oversight committees, keep detailed records, give the public access to compliance records, and cut funding from noncompliant labs.

Foreign animal testing labs that receive U.S. taxpayer dollars should not get a free pass to waste money, abuse animals, and perform dangerous experiments with no oversight, and this bill would ensure these grotesque practices are not allowed to continue.

The WATCH Act is a commonsense solution to ensure the law is upheld, and that the U.S. government does not ship billions of tax dollars to foreign animal testing labs with no transparency or accountability.

Eric Schmitt represents Missouri in the U.S. Senate. Anthony Bellotti lives in St. Louis and is the president and founder of government watchdog White Coat Waste Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.

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