Ernst criticizes USDA funding of Chinese avian flu research

White Coat Waste Project calls study “a risk to humans and animals," but a spokesperson for the USDA said the information in the letter was off-base and misleading.

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Joni Ernst, R-Iowa (

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, questioned why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was providing funding to “dangerous bird flu experiments” taking place in China in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“I am writing to obtain information about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ongoing funding of a collaboration with a Chinese Communist Party-linked researcher involving dangerous bird flu experiments and recent support for other animal labs in adversarial nations,” she wrote.

“USDA serves a vital role detecting and preventing avian influenza. Not just in Iowa, but around the world since diseases do not know or respect international boundaries. While this may require partnering with global competitors and even adversarial nations, we must never compromise public health standards in these efforts,” Ernst continued.

The letter also laid out concerns about what it called 'gain-of-function research,' claiming that the project could lead to a more infectious strain of avian influenza. 

The research project received a $1 million grant from April 2021 to March 2026 and involves researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Athens, Georgia and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

It is designed to use in vitro and in vivo studies to assess innate and adaptive immunity on avian influenza. The project will also aim to develop and harness next generation sequencing techniques and phylodynamic modeling to improve disease surveillance and control, according to the project summary on the USDA website.

White Coat Waste calls project “a risk”

According to information provided by activist group, the White Coat Waste Project, the USDA-supported experiments involve “a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus” that poses a “risk to both animals and humans,” the letter said.

Justin Goodman, Senior Vice President, White Coat Waste Project, said: “It's reckless and indefensible for bird-brained USDA bureaucrats to bankroll dangerous avian flu gain-of-function studies involving virus experimenters from the notorious Wuhan animal lab that likely caused COVID and its CCP-run parent organization, the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The White Coat Waste Project aims to “stop taxpayer-funded experiments on dogs, monkeys, cats and other animals,” as well as to “stop wasteful government spending,” its website says.

USDA reacts

In an e-mailed statement to, a USDA spokesperson said:

“Any time Senator Ernst has a question for USDA about our research or our commitment to helping America’s farmers mitigate animal diseases like highly pathogenic avian influenza, she should reach out to us directly before putting misinformation in a press release or public letter. This particular research project was applied for in 2019 and was approved in 2020, and despite the Senator’s assertions, this is not ‘gain-of-function’ research. What’s more, USDA’s funding is only being committed to the specific components carried out by our own team located in Athens, Georgia, and is not any way contributing to research taking place in the UK or China. Because animal diseases present a global threat, it is common for international researchers to conduct independent research that’s connected to the same end goal – but what Senator Ernst lays out in her letter is far off base from what’s actually transpiring, and on top of that is based on approval decisions that predate this Administration.”

View our continuing coverage of the global avian influenza situation.



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