The National Institutes of Health has awarded a $7.5 million grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on finding unknown viruses in nature, months after the cancellation of an earlier award to the group prompted an outcry over political interference.
EcoHealth had previously established a partnership with a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China — the city where the Covid-19 pandemic is believed to have begun — under the terms of a five-year grant from the NIH. That grant was due to run through 2024 but was abruptly canceled in April.
At the time, conspiracy theories were emerging that suggested that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was either accidentally or deliberately released from the lab in Wuhan. There is no proof to support the theories, but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed in April that U.S. intelligence was investigating the claims. And at a news conference that month, President Trump, when asked about the EcoHealth grant, pledged to “end that grant very quickly.”
The NIH later told EcoHealth Alliance that its project — part of which involved looking for new coronaviruses in bats and other animal species in China — no longer fit with the NIH’s priorities and program goals.
The cancellation was roundly criticized, with 77 U.S. Nobel laureates and 31 scientific societies writing to NIH leadership in protest, demanding that the decision be reviewed.
Earlier this summer the NIH told EcoHealth its grant could be restored if the organization met a number of prerequisites, including securing access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for U.S. investigators, and a virus sample from Wuhan — conditions the organization is unlikely to be able to meet.
The suggestion that EcoHealth’s work no longer fit NIH priorities appears to be at a minimum ironic, given that at the time its award was canceled, the group was in an evaluation process for the grant announced Thursday. Research teams and institutes that wanted to be considered for part of a new network — called the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases or CREID — had to apply in the spring of 2019.
EcoHealth was chosen as one of 11 institutions or research teams to be funded for work to determine how and where viruses and other new pathogens emerge from nature to begin infecting people. EcoHealth’s portion of the five-year, $82 million award will focus on Southeast Asia and the emergence of coronaviruses; filoviruses, the family responsible for Ebola; and paramyxoviruses, a family of viruses that includes measles and mumps.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH, said the new network will help the world prepare for future Covid-19 like events.
“The CREID network will enable early warnings of emerging diseases wherever they occur, which will be critical to rapid responses,” Fauci said in a statement.
EcoHealth President Peter Daszak, the principal investigator for the organization’s grant, was not immediately available for comment.
But researchers heading other centers in the network, were enthusiastic about the project.
“By improving our knowledge of how new and old pathogens emerge — while building out our capacity for detecting them rapidly — we’re going to be in a much better place,” said Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., whose center will focus on West Africa.
Nikos Vasilakis, of the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, was named principal investigator of a center that will focus on the emergence of arboviruses — viruses that are spread by mosquitoes or other insect vectors — in Central and South America.
Vasilakis said the need for better coordination of this kind of work became apparent during the 2015-2016 Zika outbreak. “Zika made it that we need a more coordinated effort on a global scale,” he said.