Congressman Griffith's Weekly E-Newsletter 5.5.23
Recent Activity by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee
The week of April 24, I chaired two Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearings that are both timely and important to the wellbeing of the public.
As chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, I have made it a priority to examine all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we can learn from it. My jurisdiction overlaps with that of the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, and we are having discussions on which hearings the committees will each hold.
So far this year, I’ve chaired hearings on the challenges to investigating the origins of pandemics and how to quickly identify the root cause of a disease outbreak. We also have taken a look at grant management by the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Following that theme, I recently chaired a hearing on biosafety practices at high-containment laboratories handling potentially dangerous pathogens. We also considered whether advancements in biotech have outpaced our country’s existing biosafety guidelines and whether we are following these guidelines.
Our hearing reinforced what I suspected, that our existing oversight framework for risky research isn’t working.
Our country’s current biosafety guidance, the Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight framework, issued in 2017, was intended to be implemented by all executive branch agencies. So far, only one agency has done so, which is Health and Human Services (HHS)
Unfortunately, HHS has left implementation up to the NIH. Given what we know about their lack of enforcement of biosafety guidelines relating to the research being done by grantee, EcoHealth Alliance, and subgrantee, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, into novel coronaviruses, it is clear that the NIH is currently neither inclined nor equipped to exercise oversight of the risky research it funds within the U.S. or abroad.
It is crazy to me that the Wuhan Institute of Virology appears to have conducted some high-risk coronavirus research at a biosafety level 2 lab when it should have been at a higher level 3 lab. And it did so with U.S. dollars.
Our current system relies on the same agency who issues a grant to a biosafety lab to also oversee the lab’s safety standards. A recommendation by one of our witnesses was that, instead, we should have a separate entity overseeing those safety standards to ensure compliance. I agree with that witness.
According to another witness, our country is also in need of a better system to document accidents, or near accidents, in high-containment labs, for the scientific community to prevent their repetition.
Balancing safety with innovation must be of upmost importance. Its Congress’ responsibility to better understand the benefits and risks with this type of research and how to better oversee it.
Ever since reading the book, The Perfect Predator, I’ve been interested in antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Written by Dr. Steffanie Strathdee, an infectious disease epidemiologist, and Associate Dean and professor at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, the book details her search for a cure to her husband's multi-drug resistant bacterial infection, which he contracted while in Egypt on vacation.
I’ve since learned that the threat posed by AMR is very real in our country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 2.8 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the United States each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
During our hearing, we discussed the dangers of AMR and potential solutions. I spoke to our witnesses about the future of bacteriophage, or phage, therapy and how it can be used to combat AMR.
Phage therapy is the process of using viruses that kill or weaken bacteria by attacking the bacteria.
Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, phage therapy had the attention of researchers, but with the discovery of antibiotics that soon fell to the wayside. Now that some pathogens have become resistant to antibiotics, the scientific community is once again exploring the benefits of this therapy. However, I think as a nation we should be doing more.
More research needs to be done to understand where it is appropriate to use phage therapy, the best way to use phage therapy, such as duration and dosing, and whether phage resistance can develop over time.
I hope to have more hearings on these subjects in the near future, as there is still so much more to learn and more that Congress can do.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. On my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.