The head of a research group that studies bat-borne coronaviruses in China similar to the COVID-19 strain that's ravaged the globe has warned that a U.S. government decision to cut funding to his organization imperils American public health.
EcoHealth Alliance's research grant was abruptly terminated last month by the National Institutes of Health, the primary agency of the U.S. government responsible for biomedical and public health research. EcoHealth Alliance's research in China is focused on identifying and warning about coronaviruses dangerous to human health.
"I'm really concerned about where this leaves us," said Peter Daszak, director of the New York-based organization, in a USA TODAY interview.
"Once we've overcome COVID-19, what about COVID-20? What about COVID-21? Who is going to go out and find those? Our grant was specifically designed to locate where these viruses are and to stop them from harming Americans," he said.
The National Institutes of Health confirmed EcoHealth Alliance's $3.4 million grant, distributed over six years, was canceled on April 24. But it would not discuss details about how the decision was made. Daszak, a respected disease ecologist, said he received a letter from the National Institutes of Health stating the award was terminated for "convenience" because it didn't "fit" with the agency's goals.
EcoHealth Alliance has collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a state-run Chinese lab in the city where COVID-19 first emerged in December. The institute has attracted negative attention because of hypotheses connecting it to unanswered questions about the origins of the virus. These questions center around the lab's biosecurity, interpretations of circumstantial evidence that link the lab to early infections and China's unwillingness to share information about some aspects of the outbreak.
Politico, which first reported on the grant cancellation on April 27, said a few days prior to the termination of EcoHealth Alliance's funding National Institutes of Health Deputy Director for Extramural Research Mike Lauer informed the organization it needed "to know all sites in China that have been in any way linked to this award."
EcoHealth Alliance has been studying coronaviruses in bats in China for more than a decade. In that time it has established deep links and worked closely with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Chinese research lab has fallen under a cloud of suspicion because President Donald Trump and senior U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have persistently linked it with unproven theories about COVID-19's origins.
No evidence has emerged to support Trump's accusations, nor are they backed by infectious disease experts. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded coronavirus was not man-made. They haven't reached any conclusions about whether the disease emerged from a lab in China or was transmitted to humans through animals.
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Daszak has not been able to secure clarification over why the award was cut. EcoHealth Alliance has received funding from the National Institutes of Health since at least 2002.
EcoHealth Alliance was the primary awardee of the $3.4 million grant. The sub-awardees were the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the East China Normal University in Shanghai, the Institute of Pathogen Biology in Beijing, and the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. A "sub-awardee" means EcoHealth Alliance acted as an intermediary between these institutions and the U.S. government for the purposes of funding joint research into bat-borne coronaviruses. It did not pay them directly.
EcoHealth Alliance has not been accused of any wrongdoing and it has not carried out any research in China since the outbreak began in Wuhan late last year.
Founded in 1971 by a British conservationist, more than 90% of EcoHealth Alliance's annual budget of $16 million in 2018 came from government grants, according to the most recent available financial accounts published on its website. The remainder of its funding came from a mixture of donations from scientific foundations, corporations and private individuals. The group has worked in the U.S. and nearly 30 countries around the world on projects ranging from forest health in Liberia to bio-surveillance in western Asia. Charity Navigator, which evaluates the transparency, accountability and governance of non-profit organizations, gives it a 4-star rating – its highest mark.
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The State Department, which is obliged to conduct background checks on any foreign organization that is a recipient of U.S. government funds for research, did not respond to a request for comment addressing the reasons for the grant's termination.
The title of EcoHealth Alliance's research proposal, first awarded under the Obama administration and then re-approved under Trump in July last year, is called "Understanding the risk of bat coronavirus emergence."
"That's exactly what we're all suffering from now," Daszak said.
"One of our goals (for the study) was to find out more about the genetic sequences of coronaviruses in bats and to get these into the hands of people who design vaccines and drugs. We had just begun work on this when the pandemic happened," he said.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has become a focus for Trump and some in his inner circle partly because it houses a lab equipped to study coronaviruses and other dangerous pathogens, and partly because of its relative proximity to a seafood market in Wuhan where some, but not all, of China's coronaviruses were first detected last year.
China's lack of transparency over how the virus first spread has amplified that focus. Beijing has also circulated, on social media and in official statements, false rumors and misinformation that the U.S. military may have brought coronavirus to China.
Trump said during a press conference on April 17 he was aware of EcoHealth Alliance's grant and he intended to end it "very quickly." Asked on April 30 whether he had seen evidence justifying theories the virus may have originated in the lab, Trump answered affirmatively – "Yes, I have." Days later, during a Fox News town hall on May 4, Trump said his administration was waiting on a "very strong report" about whether the lab was involved in the pandemic. "My opinion is they made a mistake. They tried to cover it," he said, referring to an alleged attempt by China's authorities to hide information about the nature and origins of the virus. China denies it withheld or suppressed these details.
Critics of China have also accused it of concealing the extent of its coronavirus outbreak by under-reporting both total cases and the deaths it has suffered from the disease.
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Adding to the maelstrom, Pompeo insisted Wednesday there was no obvious contradiction in his competing assertions that "we don't have certainty" about where the virus originated, yet "there is significant evidence that this came from the laboratory."
For more than a month, Senator Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been calling – "to no avail," he said – for Pompeo to share details of U.S. intelligence on the origins of the coronavirus. Menendez wrote another letter to Pompeo on Thursday, stating that the "answers to these questions are critical, as they may inform ongoing efforts to stop any further spread, limit any subsequent waves of infection, and help us prepare against future pandemics."
Linfa Wang, director of emerging infectious diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, one of EcoHealth Alliance's "sub-awardees," said scientific understanding about why and how viruses jump from animals to humans is relatively poor but improving all the time. He said the consensus among mainstream researchers is that fewer than 1% of viruses that affect mammals have been discovered.
"Fifty years ago nobody was even looking at bats. It was all about mosquitoes and rodents," he said, noting that over time bats have evolved to be particularly effective "reservoirs" of viruses deadly to humans, but not necessarily themselves, because of their unique physiologies that undergo extreme stress in order to be able to fly.
"Can we predict where the next jump (from animals to humans) will come from? No."
Still, Daszak said funding for on-the-ground overseas coronavirus research was needed now more than ever because the viruses that pose the highest risk to public health don't originate in the U.S. but in the world's most populous country.
"If we want to know anything about the next pandemic we need to be working in China," he said. Daszak described the Southeast Asia region as a "hot-bed" for new viruses.
"In peoples' imaginations there might be this image of one person in a lab in China who drops a petri dish and that somehow leads to a massive outbreak. It's just not like that. Every year there are millions of people going in bat caves and hunting and eating wildlife. It happens every day. They are being exposed to bat viruses every day. It only takes one of these people to go to a city, cough and spread a virus," he said.
"The aim of our work is to directly benefit U.S. national security and public health. If we don't do this we are going to be on the front line again when the next virus hits."
Contributing: John Fritze, Deirdre Shesgreen