The White House ordered the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cancel funding for a project in China that’s studying how coronaviruses jumped between bats to people, according to Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
The project was the only US research group working in China to study the origins of Covid-19 and bat coronaviruses. So, why did they abruptly cut the grant in April 2020? Fauci says he doesn't know, but the research project has been linked to certain unproven conspiracy theories that are being pushed by the Trump administration.
“Why was the grant canceled while we’re in the middle of this pandemic? It seems like it would have been very helpful for us to have this research considering we know very little about Covid-19,” Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) asked Dr Fauci before the House Energy & Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
“It was canceled because the NIH was told to cancel it," replied Dr Fauci. "I don’t know the reason, but we were told to cancel it.”
Fauci later confirmed to POLITICO that the White House ordered the NIH to cut the funding.
The research project was being run by EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit. Per Science, the grant from NIAID to fund the research — titled “Understanding the risk of bat coronavirus emergence” — was issued in 2014 and renewed for 5 years in 2019 after receiving “an outstanding peer-review score.” In one of its lines of inquiry, the researchers tested the blood of people who live near bat caves in southern China to see if they had produced any antibodies to specific coronaviruses.
The project was run in collaboration with Chinese virologists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in the Chinese city where researchers first identified SARS-CoV-2. The WIV has been the subject of many online conspiracies, with some suggesting the lab was responsible for releasing the virus into the human population — despite the lack of hard evidence proving this.
The conspiracy theory is being shared by the Trump administration. Both the President and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have claimed they have seen evidence that links the lab to the outbreak, with Pompeo telling ABC’s This Week in May: “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.” According to The New York Times, senior Trump administration officials have also pushed spy agencies to hunt for evidence supporting this theory.
Needless to say, very few scientists support the idea. So far, the evidence strongly suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is likely the product of natural evolution and there is no solid evidence it was “leaked” from a lab. Covid-19 appears to be just the latest in a long line of zoonotic diseases. However, that doesn't mean continuing research into animal-to-human viruses isn't needed, the global pandemic being a prime example. To cut funding to research that looks into how this transmission happens, in the middle of a global pandemic, seems counterproductive.
“Eventually, we’ll all know the shoddy truth of how a conspiracy theory pushed by this administration led @NIHDirector to block the only US research group still working in China to analyze COVID origins,” Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, tweeted on Tuesday.
“Thanks to this, China can now do the research, we can’t!”