Coronavirus researchers must examine Trump-backed conspiracy—or lose funding

Enlarge / The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 17, 2020. Getty | Hector Retamal

A New York-based nonprofit that has worked for decades to better understand and prevent the type of coronavirus pandemic now engulfing the world was abruptly stripped of its federal research funding in April. The White House specifically directed the National Institutes of Health to cancel the multimillion-dollar research grant after President Donald Trump promoted an unfounded conspiracy theory that the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was released from a lab in Wuhan, China—a lab that collaborates with the nonprofit.

Now, the NIH has told the nonprofit, EcoHealth Alliance, that it may have its funding back—if it collects and hands over materials and information about the Chinese lab, which is part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

In a July 8 letter seen by The Wall Street Journal, the NIH laid out a list of seven criteria EcoHealth Alliance must fulfill in order to regain its peer-reviewed funding. The list includes:

  • A sample of the SARS-CoV-2 isolate the Wuhan lab used to determine its genetic sequence at the beginning of the pandemic
  • An inspection from an outside group that would give “specific attention to addressing the question of whether WIV staff had SARS-CoV-2 in their possession prior to December 2019”
  • An explanation of purported restrictions at the WIV, including “diminished cellphone traffic in October 2019, and the evidence that there may have been roadblocks surrounding the facility from October 14-19, 2019”
  • An explanation for the “apparent disappearance” of a scientist who worked in the WIV coronavirus lab and was claimed by some on social media to be “patient zero” (the WIV has said in earlier statements that the person in question was a graduate student who went to work somewhere else after earning her masters degree)
  • The WIVs responses to safety concerns described in a 2018 cable sent to the US State Department

Former officials said the requests were out of line with the role of the NIH. Jimmy Kolker, a former US ambassador and former assistant secretary for global affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, told the WSJ that the NIH should not be asking about matters outside of the scope of the funded researcher.

“What theyre asking for is intelligence information that will be used for policy-making,” he said.

Former NIH Director Harold Varmus called the NIH requests “outrageous.”

In a statement, EcoHealth said that the NIH letter “attempts to impose impossible and irrelevant conditions that will effectively block us from continuing this critical work.”

The statement goes on:

These demands include asking us to provide evidence to refute conspiracy theories that are unscientific and damaging; pressuring us to inquire into research unrelated to our collaboration; and probing us on research that was conducted by other organizations, and completed years prior to our NIH-funded work.

In all, it “continues the grants termination de facto,” EcoHealth said.

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