WASHINGTON — Empower Oversight filed a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) seeking to force NIH to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and disclose documents related to a request by Chinese researchers to remove genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from a database controlled by NIH.
In July, Empower Oversight submitted a detailed FOIA request to NIH seeking records concerning NIH’s reportedly agreeing to the Chinese researchers’ request. Genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are critical to understanding how the COVID-19 pandemic started. The pandemic has killed more than 760,000 Americans.
NIH’s failure to safeguard such genetic sequence information is of utmost public interest in light of China’s failure to cooperate with efforts to discover the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In June and September, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Roger Marshall (R-KS) submitted letters on the scrubbing of SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences—demanding answers from NIH. In September, Empower Oversight filed two more FOIA requests seeking records of NIH’s inadequate response to those Senate oversight efforts, as well as information on its response to FOIA requests generally.
NIH failed to respond as required by FOIA to Empower Oversight’s requests.
Empower Oversight has not received any correspondence from NIH on any of its three FOIA requests. NIH’s website clearly shows that all three FOIA requests have been received. It is incumbent on government agencies to offer prompt replies, generally within 20 days, to any and all FOIA requests, and NIH has failed to meet that standard, thus violating FOIA law.
“The public has a right to the information that the NIH is withholding related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Empower Oversight will aggressively litigate to enforce that right in court. The NIH cannot simply ignore the compelling questions raised by Senators, the press, and public interest groups about its deletion of information that could be relevant to investigations of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans expect more transparency from our government and will not accept Chinese-style stonewalling,” said Empower Oversight Founder and President Jason Foster.
For months, Empower Oversight has fought for more transparency with the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Foster wrote that investigating the origins of the pandemic should be a bipartisan priority and demanded more accountability. Empower Oversight created a crowdsourced investigative COVID-19 Origins Timeline on its website. And, in August, Empower Oversight delivered a letter to staff and Members of Congress calling for more congressional oversight of the origins of the pandemic.
Empower Oversight has retained Husch Blackwell for this lawsuit, where NIH is charged with Failure to Comply with Statutory Deadlines in Violation of FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6) and Unlawful Withholding of Agency Records in Violation of FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3).
If you have first-hand information you’d like to disclose to assist Empower Oversight with these inquiries, please contact us confidentially here.
UPDATE: The NIH has been granted an extension until February 7, 2022 to provide answers to Empower Oversight’s requests.