Enlarge /. The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province on April 17, 2020.
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Researchers were alarmed this week after the National Institutes of Health abruptly stopped funding a long-term research project by U.S. and Chinese scientists to investigate how coronaviruses jump from bats to humans and potentially cause devastating pandemics – like the one we are currently experiencing a corona virus that is genetically linked to that of bats.
The cut in funding could hold back critical research to prevent such a spread of disease, scientists say. They also expressed dismay that the decision was sparked by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and what some see as a broader attempt by the Trump administration to distract criticism of their handling of the pandemic by accusing China of causing the disease.
The NIH has not provided a clear explanation for its cancellation of funds, which took place on April 24 and was first reported by Politico on Monday, April 27. However, in email exchanges published on April 30 by the science magazine, it is clear that this was the case at the NIH, motivated by conspiracy theories that – without evidence – claim that the virus was found by Chinese researchers in Wuhan, the central Chinese City where the pandemic started, was somehow released.
The grant, which is now not funded, is titled "Understanding the Risk of Bat Corona Viruses" and was funded by EcoHealth Alliance, Inc., a New York-based nonprofit that works with a leading Chinese researcher, the bat -Coronavirus examined, wrote Wuhan. The NIH initially funded the work in 2014 and provided $ 3.1 million for five years. The NIH then renewed the grant in 2019 after the work received an excellent peer review rating, according to Science.
The magazine reported that $ 599,000 of the initial grant went to Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who works with EcoHealth. Shi and her colleagues have collected more than 15,000 wild bat biological samples and received part of the NIH funds to conduct genetic studies that identify coronaviruses that are at high risk of jumping on humans. The grant also supported studies that tested the blood of people near bat caves in southern China to determine if the residents were infected with bat coronaviruses.
"The reason our scholarship was extended by five years is because our work is so important to prevent pandemics," said Peter Daszak, President of the EcoHealth Alliance, to Science. The project had generated at least 20 published research studies and multiple genetic sequences from bat coronaviruses, some of which were used to support veterinary remdesivir, a potential drug therapy for COVID-19.
In the midst of the pandemic, conspiracy theories have spread online that Chinese researchers are responsible for the release of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. First, there has been speculation that it is an artificial virus that may be intended for biological weapons. When the genetic analysis clearly contradicted this notion, speculation was postponed to be a natural virus that accidentally escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, possibly the WIV where Shi works. The idea was underpinned by a column in the Washington Post that State Department officials had vague security concerns about the lab as early as 2018.
Although researchers cannot completely rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 has escaped from a laboratory, coronavirus experts have repeatedly found that SARS-CoV-2 is far more likely to be found in a natural environment of wild bats or others Wildlife jumped on humans is a spillover event, much like the coronavirus relatives of SARS-CoV-2 caused disease. That is, the coronaviruses behind SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome) both naturally hopped from wild bats to other animals before they set out for humans to cause disease.
In addition, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 belongs to Shi's collection, and there is no evidence, according to Science, that researchers or the NIH were concerned about safety issues in the laboratory.
Still, the unsubstantiated idea continued, reportedly under pressure from the Trump administration to find evidence to back it up. Trump said Thursday that he had seen evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was from WIV, but was "not allowed to say more".
In an initial email to EcoHealth on April 19, Michael Lauer, deputy director of extramural research at NIH, wrote:
The scientific community believes that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has jumped from bats to humans, probably in Wuhan, where the COVID-19 pandemic started. There are now allegations that the current crisis was triggered by the release of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Given these concerns, we are seeking to suspend the Wuhan Institute of Virology from participating in federal programs.
In a subsequent email on April 24, Lauer wrote that the NIH "has decided to end the project" Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Development "for convenience."
“This grant was funded as a discretionary grant, as set out in the NIH Grants Policy Statement, which states that the decision not to grant a grant or to grant a grant at a particular funding level is at the agency's discretion. NIH's dual review system “Continued the email. "Currently, the NIH does not believe that the current project results are in line with the agency's program objectives and priorities."
Dennis Carroll, who recently retired as Director of the Emerging Threats Department at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), told Science: "There is a culture of attacking really critical science to make cheap political gains . "
In a statement to Politico, EcoHealth said: “We are working with institutions in the United States and over 25 countries that have been pre-approved by federal funding agencies to do scientific research that is critical to preventing pandemics. We plan to speak to NIH to understand the reasons for their decision. "