Enlarge /. The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province on April 17, 2020.
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A New York-based nonprofit that has worked for decades to better understand and prevent the type of coronavirus pandemic that is now gripping the world was abruptly exempted from its federal research funding in April. The White House specifically directed the National Institutes of Health to cancel the multi-million dollar research grant after President Donald Trump endorsed an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that the pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was released from a laboratory in Wuhan, China – a laboratory that works with the non-profit organization.
Now the NIH has announced to the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance that it may get its funding back – if it collects and hands over materials and information about the Chinese laboratory, which is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
In a July 8 letter to the Wall Street Journal, the NIH presented a list of seven criteria the EcoHealth Alliance must meet in order to regain its peer-reviewed funding. The list includes:
- A sample of the SARS-CoV-2 isolate from the Wuhan laboratory to determine its genetic sequence at the start of the pandemic
- An inspection by an external group that would “pay special attention to the question of whether WIV employees had SARS-CoV-2 in their possession before December 2019”.
- A statement on alleged restrictions on WIV, including "reduced cell phone traffic in October 2019 and evidence that there may have been road closures around the facility from October 14-19, 2019".
- An explanation for the "apparent disappearance" of a scientist who worked in the WIV coronavirus laboratory and was described by some on social media as "patient zero" (WIV has said in previous statements that the person in question was a PhD student, he went to work elsewhere after completing her master's degree)
- WIV's responses to security concerns outlined in a cable sent to the U.S. Department of State in 2018
Former officials said the requests were inconsistent with the role of the NIH. Jimmy Kolker, former U.S. ambassador and former assistant secretary for global affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services, told the WSJ that the NIH should not ask about matters that are outside the purview of the funded researcher.
"What they ask is intelligence information that is used in policy making," he said.
Former NIH director Harold Varmus called the NIH inquiries "outrageous".
In a statement, EcoHealth said the NIH letter "seeks to impose impossible and irrelevant conditions that will effectively prevent us from continuing this critical work".
The statement continues:
These demands include a call to produce evidence to refute conspiracy theories that are unscientific and harmful. pressure us to inquire about research that has nothing to do with our collaboration; and examine ourselves for research conducted by other organizations that was completed years before our NIH-funded work.
Overall, "it is de facto continuing the cancellation of the grant," said EcoHealth.
The eye of the storm
The researcher at the center of all of this is the virologist Shi Zhengli, who examined bat coronaviruses in her laboratory at WIV and has worked with EcoHealth in the past. In 2014, the NIH funded EcoHealth initially a grant to study bat coronavirus, which provided approximately $ 3.1 million over five years. Of that, about $ 599,000 went to Shi over the years. The agency then extended the grant in 2019 after excellent peer review results. But EcoHealth said it didn't send any additional funds to Shi or the WIV before it was terminated in April.
Shi has denied claims that her lab had anything to do with the origins of the pandemic. Although the laboratory has examined more than 2,000 bat coronaviruses over the years, almost all of these tests only looked at genetic material from the viruses, not infectious viruses.
In email replies to Science, Shi noted that the lab had only isolated and grown three coronaviruses in the past 15 years – none that were closely related to SARS-CoV-2. While the lab had sequenced genetic material from a virus believed to be a close genetic relative of SARS-CoV-2, it was estimated that the two viruses differed from a common ancestor 20 to 70 years ago.
"US. President Trump's allegation that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from our institute is completely contrary to the facts," Shi wrote to the magazine. "It endangers and affects our academic work and our private lives. He owes us an apology. "