Despite multiple U.S. agencies supporting the lab leak theory for Covid's origin, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has renewed a grant to EcoHealth Alliance for research on the "risk of bat coronavirus spillover emergence."
EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. nonprofit, partnered with China's Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) for dangerous coronavirus research before the Covid-19 pandemic using funds from the National Institutes of Health.
In 2019, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) provided a grant to the organization, which was paused in April 2020 due to concerns over ongoing collaboration with WIV. The WIV subaward was permanently suspended in August 2022 for compliance failures regarding reporting requirements.
The new grant aims to prevent future pandemics by studying the threat that zoonotic coronaviruses pose to global health. To address concerns, on-the-ground work under the new grant will not be conducted in China, but rather in collaboration with the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School. The research process will exclude "recombinant virus culture or infection experiments" and will not involve "gain of function" research, which can make viruses more transmissible or dangerous to humans.
The move caps a years-long saga that has thrust the small New York City-based nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance into the political fray for its collaborations with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China. In April 2020, after then-US president Donald Trump hinted that SARS-CoV-2 originated in a WIV laboratory, the NIH terminated EcoHealth’s grant, which aimed to study how coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2 jump from bats to humans. A few months later, the agency reinstated and immediately suspended the award until EcoHealth could meet certain conditions that, at the time, the organization said were impossible to complete.
The NIH “routinely considers processes and measures for strengthening [its] oversight over federal funds” and has been working with EcoHealth to strengthen its “administrative processes to meet NIH’s expectations”, says Amanda Fine, a spokesperson for the NIH.
Researchers who spoke to Nature applaud the renewal, adding that this type of research is essential to avert the next pandemic. They claim that the NIH’s termination and subsequent suspension were politically motivated, and that although long overdue, this renewal ends – for now – a drama-filled exchange between the agency and EcoHealth.
“It’s about goddamn time,” says Gerald Keusch, associate director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute at Boston University in Massachusetts who organized researchers to push back against EcoHealth’s grant termination in 2020. “The integrity of science requires a barrier against political interference,” he says.
In February, national-security council communications coordinator John Kirby stated that the Biden administration supports gain-of-function research as long as it is conducted safely and transparently.
The Energy Department's updated assessment, released in the same month, suggested with "low confidence" that the Covid pandemic likely originated from a lab accident. Furthermore, FBI Director Christopher Wray claimed that the pandemic's origins are most likely linked to a potential lab incident in Wuhan.