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Critics slam NIH for demands on bat grant targeted by Trump

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Science  28 Aug 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6507, pp. 1039
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6507.1039

Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation

Prominent scientists are condemning the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) for imposing unprecedented conditions before it will revive a grant to a small nonprofit research institute. The agency killed the grant in April, days after U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “end [it] very quickly.” The grant, which funded studies of how bat coronaviruses spread to humans, included work done by researchers in Wuhan, China, where the pandemic coronavirus was first identified. Trump has alleged, without evidence, that the virus escaped from their laboratory (Science, 8 May, p. 561).

In an 8 July letter, Michael Lauer, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, detailed the unusual steps the EcoHealth Alliance must take to restore funding for its grant. (The letter was first reported on 19 August by The Wall Street Journal.) They include explaining an alleged decrease in cellphone traffic and possible roadblocks near the Wuhan Institute of Virology in October 2019, compelling WIV to submit to an inspection of its facilities and records by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences or the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases focusing on whether WIV staff had the pandemic coronavirus in their possession prior to December 2019, providing a vial of the virus that WIV scientists used to sequence the pandemic coronavirus in January, explaining the “apparent disappearance” of a technician from WIV, and providing WIV's responses to 2018 U.S. State Department cables that discussed “safety concerns” at the lab. “We have concerns that WIV has not satisfied safety requirements,” Lauer wrote.

Many of the conditions are “impossible” to fulfill, the EcoHealth Alliance said, and “will effectively block us from continuing this critical work.” And outside researchers are angered by what they see as NIH's complicity in political meddling. “This is … an unconscionable action” and “a threat to the entire scientific community,” says Gerald Keusch, an emerging infectious disease expert at Boston University who was previously the head of NIH's Fogarty International Center.

“If I was a scientist wanting to pursue the agenda that NIH laid out, I would join the CIA,” says Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs, a research supply company. “It is totally outrageous when political considerations steamroller over science.” Roberts organized a letter that he and 76 other Nobel laureates sent to NIH Director Francis Collins in May, protesting the grant's cancellation. “Collins should have resigned over the original cancellation,” Roberts says, “but he appears totally spineless.”

NIH declined requests to interview Collins and Lauer, saying the agency “does not discuss internal deliberations on specific grants.” But Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, says NIH is within its rights to impose most or all of the conditions. He has criticized work proposed by the grant, asserting it could produce dangerous new viruses. “It is appropriate for the NIH to enforce biosafety standards, biosafety-reporting, and data-availability conditions,” Ebright says.

NIH first funded the EcoHealth Alliance grant in 2014 and renewed it in 2019 after it scored in the top 3% of grants reviewed. During the first 5 years, the EcoHealth Alliance sent $599,000 from the $3.1 million grant to a lab led by Shi Zhengli, a WIV virologist, to identify bat coronaviruses at high risk of jumping to humans. The grant “addresses one of the most important problems in the world right now,” former NIH Director Harold Varmus, who signed the Nobel laureates' letter, told The Wall Street Journal. He called NIH's conditions “outrageous.”

In the grant's next term, through 2024, scientists were planning human, wildlife, and lab-based studies to pinpoint places in southern China where bat coronaviruses are at high risk to jump to humans. The EcoHealth Alliance says none of the money awarded in 2019 and 2020 was sent to WIV. The group says that, in response to NIH's actions, it has received $751,000 in unsolicited donations.

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