A US research grant funding the study of bat coronaviruses in China has recently been terminated, without a clear explanation. Now, an impressive list of Nobel laureates is asking for a reconsideration of that decision.
It was a surreal story. President Trump apparently learned about the research grant from a journalist during a press conference and called for its cancellation right there. “We will end that grant very quickly,” Trump said.
Apparently, he did. Just days later, the grant recipients received news that their funding was being stopped.
As the world battles with a coronavirus that jumped from bats to humans, the US has just canceled a research project on bat coronaviruses. The project had produced significant results, too: 20 publications, including a 2018 report on what researchers described to be a “SARS-related coronavirus infection”. The researchers have also demonstrated that at least some of the new bat coronaviruses they found are capable of infecting human cells in a petri dish, which should have helped us be better prepared for this pandemic.
So science-wise, there was little reason to cancel the grant — particularly as it had already been allocated, and this type of cancellation is only reserved for scientific fraud or other major issues.
So if the reason wasn’t scientific, then what was it? No official reason was granted for the cancellation. However, the research was carried out in China, and a large part of it in Wuhan. The White House has repeatedly fueled suspicions that the virus may have originated in a lab in Wuhan, although the scientific evidence strongly indicates otherwise. Trump administration officials have even pressed U.S. intelligence agencies to find evidence linking the virus to the lab.
In the absence of a clear explanation, this feud seems to be the underlying cause.
Right from the start, the move drew intense criticism. “[It]’s the most counterproductive thing I could imagine,” said Gerald Keusch, a former director of NIH’s Fogarty International Center who is now with the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory at Boston University. Others saw it as a clear attempt to politicize science. Now, a list of 77 Nobel Laureates have penned a letter in open criticism of this decision and in direct support of Dr. Peter Daszak and the EcoHealth Alliance — the grant recipient.
“The 77 signatories of this letter, American Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics, are gravely concerned about the recent cancellation of a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to Dr. Peter Daszak at the EcoHealth Alliance in New York. We believe that this action sets a dangerous precedent by interfering in the conduct of science and jeopardizes public trust in the process of awarding federal funds for research,” the letter reads.
“We are scientists who have devoted our careers to research, both in medical and related scientific disciplines that bear on the overall health and well-being of society, as well as fundamental scientific research, much of it supported by NIH and other federal agencies. We take pride in our nation’s widely admired system for allocating funds based on expert review and public health needs. The abrupt revoking of the award to Dr. Daszak contravenes these basic tenets and 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.
We ask that you act urgently to conduct and release a thorough review of the actions that led to the decision to terminate the grant, and that, following this review, you take appropriate steps to rectify the injustices that may have been committed in revoking it.”
Politics vs science
We’ve seen it a lot, particularly in the last few years: everything can be polarized, everything can be politicized. Wearing a face mask has nothing to do with politics — it’s simply a way to save lives and help keep the virus in check — but it has become heavily politicized.
Similarly, here, a competent research team is doing its work and researching a type of virus. That type of virus happens to be the one giving the world an immense headache — which is all the more reason for them to continue their work. But science seems to have fallen victim to politics once more, and this is what the Nobel Laureates are trying to draw attention to.
The letter also received support from multiple scientific societies, including the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).
This is a matter that is important to all of us. When science falls victim to political games, our lives are also affected negatively.
“Our aim with this effort is to stand up for a scientific enterprise that should be free of political influence on sound scientific research,” said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for ASBMB, in a statement. “The continued politicization of science during this pandemic crisis is an alarming trend that is risking not only the integrity of science, but also the lives of citizens.”