President Trump ordered the cancellation of a large research project involving exactly the type of viruses we are fighting with right now. The cancellation was ordered because the research involved the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been a shocking announcement. As the world is battling with a coronavirus that jumped from bats to humans, the US just canceled a research project about coronaviruses that can jump from bats to humans.
The research grant was first awarded in 2014 and was renewed last year. It went to EcoHealth Alliance, which describes itself as “a global environmental health nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease.” The purpose of the grant is to characterize coronaviruses in bat populations in southern China and monitor spillover events in which these viruses could leap to humans.
Given the current state of affairs, and the fact that coronavirus outbreaks — not just the one that causes COVID-19 — have become a relatively common occurrence, that seems like exactly the type of study you want to fund.
There have been notable results. The project has produced 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.
All in all, there seems to be no scientific reason for canceling this grant. It’s a perfectly reasonable scientific project with important results. But the problem isn’t scientific — it’s political.
It all started with a Donald Trump press conference. A reporter mischaracterized facts, saying that “US intelligence is saying this week that the coronavirus likely came from a level 4 lab in Wuhan,” and that the NIH had awarded a $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan lab. “Why would the US give a grant like that to China?” she asked.
“We will end that grant very quickly,” Trump said in his answer. Then he added, “2015? Who was president then, I wonder.”
Everything in that sequence is very dubious. For starters, the White House has repeatedly tried to suggest (or outright claim) that the Wuhan research laboratory is responsible for the virus — despite a mountain of scientific evidence suggesting otherwise. Anthony Fauci himself has dismissed this a baseless idea. Then, the grant was renewed last year, under Trump’s own presidency.
But most importantly, the money was not sent to the Wuhan laboratory. The grant money was offered to EcoHealth Alliance. According to the president of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, around 10% of the grant (around $76,000) was paid to the Wuhan lab for groundwork and field analysis — which is what you’d expect for any project that involves working with a local institution.
“I can categorically state that no fund from [the grant] have been sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nor has any contract been signed,” Daszak explained.
But it didn’t seem to matter. Just one day after Trump’s press conference, he was contacted by the NIH, and within days, he was informed that the entire project was canceled.
Withdrawing grant money that has already been awarded is an extremely uncommon decision, typically reserved for gross misconduct or financial mishandling — none of which there is any evidence of here.
Ironically, the very day before Daszak was informed about the project being canceled, the NIH had announced a strategic plan detailing COVID-19 research priorities — which fit perfectly with what Daszak and colleagues were already doing.
In a press release about the project’s cancellation, EcoHealth explained:
“The research that the National Institutes of Health terminated aimed to analyze the risk of coronavirus emergence and help in designing vaccines and drugs to protect us from COVID-19 and other coronavirus threats. In fact, genetic sequences of two bat coronaviruses that we discovered with this grant have been used as lab tools to test the breakthrough antiviral drug Remdesivir. For that reason, it is clear that this research is vital for protecting the lives of Americans, and people around the world who are battling COVID-19.
Our research was reviewed by independent scientists, considered extremely high priority by NIH NIAID Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research, and funded in 2019. The goals of our work address all four strategic research priorities of the NIH/NIAID Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research, released just this week. More importantly, international collaboration with countries where viruses emerge is absolutely vital to our own public health and national security here in the USA.”
The project has already uncovered hundreds of bat coronaviruses with the potential to jump to humans. That collection is now in freezers in China, and will likely remain there because funding for the project has been canceled.
That’s a serious missed opportunity, both for this pandemic, and for future outbreaks that can emerge in the future. We know that bat coronaviruses are particularly dangerous, and the genetic samples that would have been sent to labs in the US will now remain stuck in China.
Over the next four years, the plan was to dive into how rural communities in China are exposed to these viruses, and what can be done to reduce the risk of viruses making the leap to humans.
Scientifically, it doesn’t make any sense. From a humanitarian perspective, it’s highly counterproductive. So far, the NIH has refused to comment on the rationale for this cancelation, and it’s hard to see any reason for it other than a president’s whim.