Update (May 26): Last week, 77 Nobel laureates and 31 scientific societies separately sent letters to NIH Director Francis Collins criticizing the decision to terminate the grant and urging that it be reviewed, Science reports.
A grant to a New York nonprofit aimed at detecting and preventing future outbreaks of coronaviruses from bats has been canceled by the National Institutes of Health, Politico reports, apparently at the direction of President Donald Trump because the research involved the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. The virology institute has become a focal point for the idea that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the laboratory and caused the current COVID-19 pandemic, a scenario experts say is not supported by evidence. Instead, virologists The Scientist has spoken to say the virus most likely jumped from infected animals to humans.
The grant, first awarded in fiscal year 2014 and most recently renewed last year, went to EcoHealth Alliance, which describes itself as “a global environmental health nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease.” The aims of the funded project included characterizing coronaviruses present in bat populations in southern China and conducting surveillance to detect spillover events of such viruses to people. The project has resulted in 20 publications, most recently a March report on zoonotic risk factors in rural southern China.
EcoHealth Alliance’s partners on the project include researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 facility that has for months been a focus of conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 escaped or was released from a lab. On April 14, the The Washington Post published a column highlighting State Department cables about concerns regarding safety at the institute. (Experts tell NPR that, even in light of the cables, accidental escape of the virus from a lab remains a far less likely scenario than a jump from animals.)
Then, in an April 17 White House coronavirus briefing, a reporter, whom Politico identifies as being from Newsmax, falsely stated in a question that “US intelligence is saying this week that the coronavirus likely came from a level 4 lab in Wuhan,” and that the NIH had awarded a $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan lab. “Why would the US give a grant like that to China?” she asked. “We will end that grant very quickly,” Trump said in his answer.
An NIH official then wrote to EcoHealth Alliance to inquire about money sent to “China-based participants in this work,” Politico reports, and the organization’s head, Peter Daszak, responded that a complete response would take time, but that “I can categorically state that no fund from [the grant] have been sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nor has any contract been signed.” Days later, NIH notified EcoHealth Alliance that future funding for the project was canceled, and that it must immediately “stop spending the $369,819 remaining from its 2020 grant”—an unusual move generally reserved for cases of scientific misconduct or financial improprieties, according to Politico.
In a statement about the cancellation, EcoHealth Alliance says the terminated research “aimed to analyze the risk of coronavirus emergence and help in designing vaccines and drugs to protect us from COVID-19 and other coronavirus threats,” and that it addresses “all four strategic research priorities of the NIH/NIAID Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research, released just this week.” The organization will, it says, “continue our fight against this and other emerging diseases.”