The National Institutes of Health has awarded a grant worth $7.5 million over five years to EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S.-based nonprofit that hunts emerging viruses. The award comes months after NIH revoked an earlier grant to EcoHealth, a move scientists widely decried as the politically motivated quashing of research vital to preventing the next coronavirus pandemic.
EcoHealth Alliance is one of 11 institutions and research teams receiving grants from NIH, announced this week, to establish the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases. The global network will monitor pathogens that emerge in wildlife and study how and where they go on to infect humans.
The centers should also serve as an early-warning system against future pandemics, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said in a statement Thursday.
"The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a potent reminder of the devastation that can be wrought when a new virus infects humans for the first time," Fauci stated, adding, "The knowledge gained through this research will increase our preparedness for future outbreaks."
This multi-million-dollar support sends a far different message than what EcoHealth heard in April, when the NIH abruptly terminated an earlier grant to the group, saying NIH did not believe EcoHealth's research aligned with "agency priorities."
The termination stemmed from EcoHealth's work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the Chinese city where the current pandemic began. The years-long collaboration involved the collection of hundreds of coronavirus samples recovered from bats in China and research into how they were spilling over into human populations.
EcoHealth's bat research in China was entirely funded through the $3.7 million NIH grant. A small portion — about $76,000 per year — was used to pay the Wuhan lab for its on-the-ground work.
Since the termination of the grant, that research has been at a complete standstill, says Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance. "I feel extremely frustrated that the most important work of our careers here at EcoHealth Alliance — now, we can't do that work," he says.
He says the project had identified fragments of genetic sequences for hundreds of wholly new bat coronaviruses, including some that were close relatives of SARS-COV-2, the virus causing the current pandemic. "The next step in that research is to sequence the whole genome of those viruses and say, could they bind to human cells? Does this look like a virus that could potentially emerge?"
But now, he says, "we can't do that work. And I don't think that work is going to happen in China, because they were relying on us to fund it."
"That's the most critical work in the midst of an outbreak caused by exactly the same [type of] virus," Daszak says, adding, "It's a loss to the public. It's a loss to global health and it's a loss to U.S. national security as well."
At the time that grant was revoked, conspiracy theories suggested the virus may have emerged from the Wuhan lab. As NPR has reported, many scientists who study viruses called that scenario nearly impossible. The grant was cancelled days after President Trump was asked at a White House press conference about the use of funds from the grant to pay the Wuhan lab.
The termination prompted outrage among the scientific community. In May, 77 Nobel Prize-winning American scientists signed onto a letter denouncing the cancellation of the grant, saying the move set a "dangerous precedent by interfering in the conduct of science" and deprived "the nation and the world of highly regarded science that could help control one of the greatest health crises in modern history and those that may arise in the future."
In July, NIH sent EcoHealth Alliance a letter saying that it would restore funding for the earlier grant if it met certain conditions. Those conditions included obtaining a sample of the SARS-COV-2 virus that the Wuhan lab used to determine its genetic sequence and arranging for an independent team to examine the Wuhan lab and determine whether it had possession of the SARS-COV-2 virus prior to December 2019, according to reporting by The Wall Street Journal.
The letter also demanded that EcoHealth figure out the whereabouts of a scientist at the Wuhan lab whose photo was removed from its website, the paper reported. The scientist has been the focus of internet conspiracy theories suggesting she was in fact "patient zero" for the coronavirus. The Wuhan Institute of Virology has previously said that the scientist in question was a graduate student who had finished her master's degree and moved on to other work.
Daszak confirmed NIH's conditions for restoring the prior grant to NPR and called them "preposterous."
"I'm not trained as a private detective," he says. "It's not really my job to do that."
Daszak says he still hopes NIH will change its mind and restore the canceled grant for its work in China.
But for now, Daszak says he's excited about the research that will be possible thanks to the new NIH grant for the creation of the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases, or CREID. The new grant will not be used for any research in China, he says.
Each of the centers in the CREID network will focus on creating research and surveillance collaborations in different geographical regions. EcoHealth Alliance's work will target Southeast Asia, specifically Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Daszak says the focus will be on pathogens emerging from bats, rodents and primates. That will mean studying coronaviruses, of course, but also filoviruses, a family of viruses that includes Ebola, and paramyxoviruses, a group that includes the viruses that cause mumps, measles and Nipah, a highly lethal virus that inspired the 2011 movie Contagion.
Daszak says EcoHealth Alliance will also be working with rural hospitals, looking for people who come in with severe and novel respiratory diseases. "We're going to work in remote parts of Malaysia and Thailand to get to the front line of where the next pandemic is going to start," he says.