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July 01, 2020

Coronavirus research funds cut over ties to Chinese lab

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The National Institutes of Health abruptly pulled funding from a U.S. nonprofit studying how coronaviruses in bats infect humans following reports that NIH grants were supporting a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China, the city where COVID-19 was first reported.

On April 24, the NIH informed the New York–based EcoHealth Alliance it was revoking the $3.7 million research grant on account of the alliance’s ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Moreover, the nonprofit was told to stop spending remaining funds of nearly $370,000 from its 2020 grant.

Conspiracy theories have circulated widely that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was engineered in the Wuhan laboratory.

President Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also implicated the Wuhan laboratory as the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists and U.S. intelligence agencies say no such evidence exists.

EcoHealth Alliance President Pete Daszak, PhD, has denied giving money to the Wuhan laboratory in 2020, adding that researchers from the facility have collaborated with alliance scientists on research supported by an earlier NIH grant.

In a statement responding to the NIH action, Dr. Daszak explained, “EcoHealth Alliance scientists come together from a diverse set of backgrounds and disciplines to better understand the viruses that threaten us and the human behaviors that allow their spillover.

“As a nonprofit organization, our work is supported by various sources, including U.S. federal funding agencies. In each of nearly 30 countries around the world where we work, we collaborate with local institutions, all of which are pre-approved by our federal funders.”

For several years, the EcoHealth Alliance has described coronaviruses as an immediate and potentially global public health threat.

During a 2003 interview with “60 Minutes,” Dr. Daszak said, “What worries me the most is that we are going to miss the next emerging disease, that we’re suddenly going to find a SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus that moves from one part of the planet to another, wiping out people as it moves along.”

In a May 21 letter, dozens of Nobel laureates denounced the cancellation of funding as “a dangerous precedent” of federal interference that threatens public trust in the process by which the government funds scientific research. By abruptly revoking the grant, the NIH “deprives the nation and the world of highly regarded science that could help control one of the greatest health crises in modern history and those that may arise in the future,” the letter states.

The letter was organized by Nobel laureate Richard Roberts, PhD, chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs. “We are hoping the NIH will reconsider their decision, but if not, we are hoping that perhaps a private foundation will discover the story and step in to help support Dr. Daszak,” Dr. Roberts told JAVMA News.