Mar 21, 2024 - Health

Senate probe examines high-risk biotech research

A photo of Sens. Rand Paul and Gary Peters at a dais.

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.). Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Senators are launching an investigation of national security threats posed by high-risk biological research amid intensifying concern over U.S.-China biotech competition and lingering questions about COVID's origins.

Why it matters: The probe by the top lawmakers on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee could help fuel a push for new restrictions on Chinese contract research firms like WuXi AppTec that critics say are tied to Beijing and pose a security risk.

  • But it's also certain to reveal partisan divisions, with ranking Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky likely to highlight what he contends are Biden administration efforts to conceal information on the coronavirus.

Driving the news: Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Paul on Wednesday said they'd focus hearings and oversight on high-risk life science research, biodefense, synthetic biology, biosafety and biosecurity lapses.

  • The inquiry also will take up early warning of emerging outbreaks or possible attacks and potential origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.
  • "The investigation will also seek to increase transparency and strengthen oversight of taxpayer-funded life sciences research, laboratories in the U.S. and abroad, and detection of biological threats," per a committee statement.

Between the lines: Peters is emphasizing the need to minimize the risk that developments in the life sciences like CRISPR gene editing can be manipulated by bad actors.

  • A bill he sponsored that would cut off U.S. taxpayer funding for select Chinese biotech companies advanced out of committee this month on an 11-1 vote, with Paul being the lone dissenter.
  • Paul wants to use the probe to hold accountable individuals who conduct "gain-of-function" research, which is at the center of theories that the coronavirus resulted from experiments in a lab in Wuhan, China, that accidentally spilled over.
  • "I've been banging on the doors of federal agencies for the past three years, relentlessly seeking information on COVID-19, but it's been nothing short of a wild goose chase," Paul said.

What we're watching: The probe could give both lawmakers added airtime as multiple congressional committees pursue possible restrictions on Chinese biotech.

  • But it's an open question whether any resulting legislation will grandfather in existing arrangements with the Chinese research firms or disrupt research collaborations many in biopharma view as critical.
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