The middle of a coronavirus-induced global pandemic might seem a bad time to cancel a research grant to study bat coronaviruses, but the US government thinks otherwise, doing exactly that on April 24. The decision attracted immediate criticism, and now 77 Nobel prize winners and 31 scientific organizations have signed an open letter to explain why the consequences extend beyond making future pandemics more likely.
“We believe that this action sets a dangerous precedent by interfering in the conduct of science and jeopardizes public trust in the process of awarding federal funds for research,” the prize winners write.
The grant was made to the EcoHealth Alliance, an international group that seeks to protect humans, animals, and the environment from new infectious diseases. While there is debate over whether bats represent a greater disease than other animals, the 2002-3 SARS outbreak made clear the possibility of a coronavirus jumping the species barrier and infecting us. Consequently, the EcoHealth Alliance began trapping bats in China and testing their blood and saliva for coronaviruses.
The work may help us predict future epidemics and fast-track our capacity to deal with any that do. Potentially, it could assist efforts to create a universal coronavirus vaccine, protecting against those already in humans and those still to come.
Even before the importance of coronavirus research was made plain, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) chose to fund this work, leading to 20 peer-reviewed papers since 2015. Last year, they granted EcoHealth another $700,000 over five years.
The EcoHealth Alliance work with scientists around the world, including in China. Unfortunately for the Alliance, their collaborators were based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the lab blamed in various discredited but persistent conspiracy theories about cooking up SARS-CoV-2. President Trump was asked about the funding at a press conference and responded: "We will end that grant very quickly.” A week later, all unspent funding was pulled, removing the researchers' capacity to hunt out future pandemic threats.
Disquiet has rippled through the scientific community, now expressed in two open letters. The Nobel Laureates, who represent the majority of living American winners for Medicine, Physics and Chemistry, express their confidence in the work of the EcoHealth Alliance's lead researcher Dr Peter Daszak. They note “the very high priority score that his application for renewal had received during peer review.” The letter says the justification that the work does not align with program goals and agency priorities are “preposterous under the circumstances.”
The second letter comes from 31 societies representing hundreds of thousands of scientists. “The foundation of the American biomedical research enterprise rests on two principles: international collaboration and a robust peer-review process,” they write, later adding that “the decision sets a dangerous precedent by revoking a grant that was awarded based upon scientific merit without a justifiable rationale such as issues related to scientific or financial fraud or misconduct.”