Jan 19, 2023 - Health

Watchdog faults HHS oversight of research on possible pandemic pathogens

The Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington D.C. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The federal health department's framework for monitoring high-risk research on viruses and other agents that can cause pandemics doesn't meet key criteria for effective oversight, a new watchdog report concludes.

What they found: The Government Accountability Office found HHS has an unclear policy for reviewing and approving research involving pathogens that are altered to make them more transmissible or deadly — and that other policy gaps may allow the research to occur without appropriate oversight.

  • The report faults HHS for not fleshing out what work "reasonably anticipated to create, transfer, or use enhanced potential pandemic pathogens" under a 2017 framework should be referred for extra reviews of risks and benefits.
  • That could leave HHS without assurance it is reviewing all necessary research proposals, GAO says.

Don't forget: The report comes as House Republicans plan to ramp up oversight of federal health agencies' response to COVID-19 — long a front-burner issue for the GOP.

Background: HHS does its own research to identify and prepare for public health threats. But it also funds and reviews work at universities, medical schools, biotech companies and other research institutions.

  • The department has reviewed three research proposals under the 2017 framework, per the GAO report. Two studies involving highly infectious avian influenza have concluded while a third influenza proposal was revised so that didn't involve enhanced pathogen research.

The report recommended that HHS set a standard to ensure consistency in identifying high-risk research for departmental review and identify and share non-sensitive information with researchers, Congress and the public about the review process.

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