In DepthCOVID-19

NIH move to ax bat coronavirus grant draws fire

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Science  08 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6491, pp. 561-562
DOI: 10.1126/science.368.6491.561

Science's COVID-19 coverage is supported by the Pulitzer Center.


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Researchers with the EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology took samples from bats in southern China in order to identify viruses that might harm humans.

PHOTO: ECOHEALTH ALLIANCE

The research community is reacting with alarm and anger to the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) abrupt decision to kill a grant that helped support research in China on how coronaviruses—such as the one causing the current COVID-19 pandemic—move from bats to humans.

The unusual 24 April move occurred shortly after President Donald Trump alleged—without providing evidence—that the pandemic virus had escaped from a Chinese laboratory supported by the NIH grant, and vowed to end the funding. The episode came as calls mounted for China to allow an independent investigation, perhaps led by the United Nations. “The whole world wants the exact origin of the virus to be clarified,” German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas said on 4 May.

Many scientists are skeptical of the laboratory escape theory, and the Chinese virologist at the heart of the allegation rejects the idea. Critics of NIH's decision, meanwhile, say it represents an unacceptable intrusion of politics into the agency's grants process and possibly violated its rules.

“This is a horrible precedent” and “the most counterproductive thing I could imagine” given the work's relevance to understanding the current pandemic and preventing futures ones, says Gerald Keusch, a former director of NIH's Fogarty International Center who is now at Boston University. Other researchers note that work done on the canceled grant allowed testing of the antiviral drug remdesivir, which is showing promise in treating COVID-19.

NIH would not comment on why it canceled the grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit in New York City that runs global research collaborations. But in emails reviewed by Science, Michael Lauer, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, suggested the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a partner on the grant, had not “taken all appropriate precautions to prevent the release of pathogens.” He also wrote that the grant did not “align” with NIH priorities. But NIH offered no support for either statement, and Lauer called claims that the pandemic virus had escaped from WIV just “allegations.”

The termination disrupts a long-standing collaboration. For 15 years, the grant's principal investigator, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, has collaborated with Shi Zhengli, a leading WIV virologist, to study bat coronaviruses. In 2014, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded the alliance a $3.1 million, 5-year grant. About $600,000 went to Shi to collect blood, urine, and other samples from bats in China and to sequence viruses found in them, with the goal of identifying coronaviruses that might infect humans. (Shi's team has amassed some 15,000 samples from bats.) The funding enabled blood testing of people who live near bat caves in southern China, revealing that nearly 3% of them had been infected with coronaviruses originating in bats.

The project also produced research tools, including genetic sequences of two coronaviruses that have now been used to test remdesivir. “Our work on remdesivir absolutely would not have moved forward” without the alliance's research, says virologist Mark Denison of Vanderbilt University, who launched the studies that led to the drug's current use.

In 2019, the grant was renewed after receiving an outstanding score from peer reviewers. The researchers received an additional $292,000, none of which went to Shi, Daszak says. The team planned to do more human, wildlife, and lab-based studies to pinpoint hot spots in southern China where the risk is highest for a bat coronavirus to jump to humans. “The reason our grant was renewed for 5 years is because our work is so important,” Daszak says.

Shi's work has already shed light on the pandemic's origins. In January, her team published the genetic sequence of a bat virus it collected that shares 96.2% of its genome with SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic coronavirus. The finding suggests SARS-CoV-2 originated in bats, although researchers widely believe it most likely jumped to another mammal before infecting humans.

Among some policymakers and media, however, the finding fed speculation that SARS-CoV-2 had been engineered by scientists at WIV, or was a collected virus that escaped from that laboratory. On 14 April, the speculation mounted after a column in The Washington Post reported that U.S. Department of State officials had, in 2018, raised concerns about safety at WIV's then-new biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory, designed to handle the most dangerous pathogens. The multicampus WIV also has separate, lower containment BSL-2 and BSL-3 laboratories where Shi did her grant-funded work, Daszak says. But after a reporter erroneously informed Trump that NIH had funded work at the BSL-4 lab, he replied: “We will end that grant very quickly.”

One week later, Lauer emailed Daszak that NIH was ending the alliance's grant “for convenience.” Asked by Science to explain the phrase, NIH pointed to a Grants Policy Statement that says it can unilaterally cancel a grant “to protect the public health and welfare from the effects of a serious deficiency.”

Administrators familiar with NIH believe the agency might have broken regulations governing grant disbursal, which allow the midstream cancellation of an award for just a few reasons, such as malfeasance.

Virologist Dennis Carroll, who recently retired as director of the emerging threats division of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says he saw the cables on the safety of WIV's BSL-4 lab when he was at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and doesn't “place an enormous amount of weight on the observations” because they were made by diplomats, not scientists. If any problems were “of substance,” he adds, NIH would have “needed to take serious steps” because it funded work at WIV. (There is no public indication NIH took any action.)

Other researchers say there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from WIV, although they concede the scenario can't be completely ruled out. They note that research suggests the bat virus Shi described, although 96.2% similar to the pandemic virus, evolved in bats at least 20 years ago, meaning it would have taken decades to evolve into the pandemic virus had it escaped from a laboratory. On 1 May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” but was still “rigorously” examining whether it spread from infected animals or a lab accident in Wuhan.

Shi has said that virus didn't come from her work. “The closest progenitor of COVID-19 virus is still mysterious and it's definitely not from my lab or any other labs,” she told Science on 18 April. “It's a shame to make the science so complicated.”

The Chinese government has rejected assertions that it bears responsibility for the pandemic—and has suggested that the virus originated in the United States. The government says it has launched investigations into the origins of the virus, but has provided few details and has placed restrictions on scientists in China who are studying the question. “They're not helping themselves,” says James Le Duc, director of Galveston National Laboratory, where he runs a BSL-4 lab.

China is facing growing pressure to allow an independent investigation. On 1 May, the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Emergency Committee of expert advisers recommended a probe that would involve “field missions” to China and perhaps include the World Organisation for Animal Health and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Others have made similar recommendations. “It would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on 23 April in urging a WHO probe.

WHO is not involved in studies in China, says spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic, but it “would be keen to work with international partners and at the invitation of the Chinese government to participate in investigation around the animal origins” of the virus.

Daszak, meanwhile, says he is trying to engage NIH about the future of his group's work. He says he asked on 27 April to speak with Lauer, but had not heard back as of 5 May, when Science went to press.

  • With reporting by Kai Kupferschmidt, David Malakoff, Dennis Normile, and John Travis.

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