Researchers expressed alarm this week after the National Institutes of Health abruptly cancelled funding for a long-standing research project by US and Chinese scientists to examine how coronaviruses leap from bats to humans, potentially causing devastating pandemics—such as the one we are currently experiencing by a coronavirus genetically linked to those found in bats.
The funding cut could set back critical research into preventing such disease spread, scientists say. They also expressed dismay that the decision was prompted by unfounded conspiracy theories and what some see as a wider attempt by the Trump administration to deflect criticism of its handling of the pandemic by blaming China for unleashing the disease.
The NIH has not provided a clear explanation for its move to cancel the funds, which occurred April 24 and was first reported by Politico Monday, April 27. However, in emails exchanges published April 30 by Science magazine, it is clear that the NIH was motivated by conspiracy theories that allege—without evidence—that the virus was somehow released by Chinese researchers in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the pandemic began.
The grant that is now going unfunded is titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” and it was written by EcoHealth Alliance, Inc., a non-profit based in New York that collaborates with a leading Chinese researcher who studies bat coronaviruses in Wuhan. The NIH initially funded the work in 2014, providing $3.1 million for five years. The NIH then renewed the grant in 2019 after the work received an outstanding peer-review score, according to Science.
The magazine reported that $599,000 of the initial grant money went to Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who collaborates with EcoHealth. Shi and her colleagues have collected more than 15,000 biological samples from wild bats and received a portion of the NIH funding to do genetic studies that would identify coronaviruses at high risk of jumping to humans. The grant also supported studies testing the blood of people living near bat caves in southern China, to see if the residents had been infected with bat coronaviruses.
“The reason our grant was renewed for five years is because our work is so important in helping prevent pandemics,” Daszak told Science. The project had generated at least 20 published research studies and several genetic sequences of bat coronaviruses, some of which have been used to help vet remdesivir, a potential drug therapy against COVID-19.
However, amid the pandemic, conspiracy theories have festered online that Chinese researchers were responsible for the release of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. First, there was speculation that it was a man-made virus, potentially one intended for biowarfare. When genetic analysis clearly contradicted that notion, speculation shifted to suggesting that it was a natural virus that accidentally escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, potentially, the WIV where Shi works. The idea has been bolstered by a column in the Washington Post that US Department of State officials had vague safety concerns about the lab back in 2018.
Though researchers can’t completely rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab, coronavirus experts have consistently said it is far more likely that SARS-CoV-2 leapt from wild bats or other wild animals to humans in a natural spillover event, similar to how SARS-CoV-2’s coronavirus relatives caused disease. That is, the coronaviruses behind SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) both hopped naturally from wild bats to other animals before making their way to humans to cause disease.
Moreover, there’s no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was among Shi’s collection and there’s no indication that any researchers or the NIH was concerned about safety issues at the lab, according to Science.
Still, the unfounded idea has continued, reportedly with pressure from the Trump Administration to find evidence to substantiate it. Trump said on Thursday that he had seen evidence that SARS-CoV-2 came from WIV but was “not allowed” to say more.
In an initial email to EcoHealth on April 19, Michael Lauer, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, reportedly wrote:
The scientific community believes that the coronavirus causing COVID-19 jumped from bats to humans likely in Wuhan where the COVID-19 pandemic began. There are now allegations that the current crisis was precipitated by the release from Wuhan Institute of Virology of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. Given these concerns, we are pursuing suspension of Wuhan Institute of Virology from participation in federal programs.
In a subsequent email on April 24, Lauer wrote that the NIH has “elected to terminate the project ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’… for convenience.”
“This grant was funded as a discretionary grant as outlined in the NIH Grants Policy Statement which states that the decision not to award a grant, or to award a grant at a particular funding level, is at the discretion of the agency, in accordance with NIH’s dual review system,” the email went on. “At this time, NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities.”
Dennis Carroll, who recently retired as director of the emerging threats division of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), noted to Science that “There’s a culture of attacking really critical science for cheap political gain.”
In a statement to Politico, EcoHealth noted that “We work in the United States and in over 25 countries with institutions that have been pre-approved by federal funding agencies to do scientific research critical to preventing pandemics. We are planning to talk with NIH to understand the rationale behind their decision.”