The U.S. government has suddenly terminated funding for a years-long research project in China that many experts say is vital to preventing the next major coronavirus outbreak.
The project was run by a U.S. nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance. For more than a decade, the group has been sending teams to China to trap bats, collect samples of their blood, saliva and feces, and then check those samples for new coronaviruses that could spark the next global pandemic. The idea is to identify locations that need to be monitored, come up with strategies to prevent spillover of the virus into human populations and get a jump on creating vaccines and treatments. Already the project has identified hundreds of coronaviruses, including one very similar to the virus behind the current outbreak.
But since early this month, U.S. officials have been working to raise suspicions about a key collaborator on the project: the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located in the city where the outbreak began. U.S. intelligence officials are investigating whether the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute through some sort of contamination accident. As noted in an NPR story published last week, many scientists have discounted that theory as nearly impossible.
Nonetheless, at an April 17 news conference, President Trump said he had given instructions to check if any U.S. funding was slated for the Wuhan Institute, and if so, he said, it would immediately be terminated. Days later, on April 24, the National Institutes of Health, or NIH — which was providing the grant for the project — notified EcoHealth Alliance that the money was being canceled, as first reported by Politico.
To learn more about the cutoff of funds and the possible impact on coronavirus research, NPR interviewed the president of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, as well as Robert Garry, a microbiologist at Tulane University who is playing a prominent role in COVID-19 research but who does not work with the nonprofit. (NPR reached out to both NIH and the White House for comment. The White House referred questions to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees NIH. A spokesman for the department did not respond to a request for comment and neither did officials at NIH.)
Here are the answers we got to four key questions:
Who approved funding for this project?
At the April 17 White House news conference, a reporter mischaracterized key details about the project, stating that “the NIH, under the Obama administration, in 2015 gave that lab $3.7 million in a grant” and asking Trump, “Why would the U.S. give a grant like that to China?”
Trump continued that erroneous depiction, answering, “I understand it was a number of years ago, right?” Then he added, “2015? Who was president then, I wonder.”
In fact, while the first grant for the project was indeed given in 2015 (for $3.25 million over five years), the $3.7 million was approved last year as a five-year renewal.
Also, only about 10% of the grant — about $76,000 per year — was slated for the Wuhan Institute. This was provided in recognition that the Wuhan lab was doing the bulk of the on-the-ground sample collection and analysis, says EcoHealth Alliance’s Daszak.
“You can’t just turn up as an American and say, ‘I want to find out what viruses you’ve got,’ ” says Daszak. “You have to work with local collaboration and with the permission of the governments.”
Daszak adds that NIH approved the five-year renewal unusually quickly. “When you submit those grants, they get reviewed independently by scientists, and they’re assigned a score,” says Daszak. “We received a really extremely high priority for funding.”
What results has the project yielded so far?
Daszak says the China bat sampling project has already racked up quite a number of successes. The team and its collaborators at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have collected about 15,000 samples from bats. From these they have already identified about 400 wholly new coronaviruses. About 50 of those fall into a category that caused the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic.
The researchers were also able to demonstrate that at least some of the new bat coronaviruses they have found are capable of infecting a human cell in a petri dish. Then the team sampled the blood of people in China who live near various bat caves. They found evidence that for some time now, these bat coronaviruses have been spilling over into the human population.
“Our work has shown that between 1 [million] and 7 million people a year are exposed in rural China and rural Southeast Asia to these viruses,” says Daszak.
“It really gives us a forward look at what could be coming down the pike.”
Indeed, once the current pandemic began, the Wuhan Institute researchers on the project were able to consult their library of bat coronaviruses. They found an extremely close match.
All this work makes EcoHealth Alliance a “major player” in the field, says Garry, the microbiologist at Tulane. “These are notable papers that people will be citing going forward.”
How did funding for the project unravel so quickly?
Almost as soon as the pandemic began, conspiracy theories started circulating, pointing to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the culprit. In recent weeks, these have gained traction with the revelation that U.S. intelligence agencies are assessing the possibility of a lab accident, as well as with the leak of State Department cables obtained by The Washington Post indicating that in 2018, officials had raised safety concerns about the Wuhan lab. Trump and other Republican figures have used these points in a broader narrative that they are advancing, blaming China for the pandemic.
EcoHealth Alliance’s Daszak says his first “inkling” of the impact that this would have on funding for the China research project came in a series of emails from NIH that began shortly after Trump’s April 17 press conference. In the first email, “they said, ‘Can you not send funds to the Wuhan Institute of Virology?’ ” he recalls. “We wrote back straight away and said, ‘Of course we won’t [fund them]. Absolutely.’ ”
In another email, on April 23, he says NIH expressed its thanks.
The very next day, on Friday, April 24, he received another email from NIH informing him that the funding for the China bat coronavirus project had been eliminated because “at this time NIH does not believe the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities.”
This was particularly mystifying, Daszak says, because just a day earlier, NIH had released a strategic plan detailing COVID-19 research priorities. “Our work is relevant to all four priority areas within that strategic plan,” says Daszak.
“We really don’t understand the rationale behind this,” he says. “And we’ve reached out to NIH and have not received a response yet.”
Garry of Tulane says it is “highly unusual” for NIH to halt funding for a project this way. “Scientifically this doesn’t make sense. Scientists should be able to work with other scientists without politics.”
What happens to the research that the project was doing?
The China bat research project was funded entirely through the NIH grant, says Daszak. “So with the funding terminated, we won’t be able to do this work. The fieldwork will not carry on.”
That poses a threat to U.S. national security and public health, he says. “Once this pandemic is over, we know of hundreds of other coronaviruses that we’ve found evidence of in China that are waiting to emerge,” says Daszak. “We are now going to be unable to know about the risk of that, which puts us completely at risk of the next pandemic.”
At a minimum, EcoHealth — and the many international researchers to whom it provides information — will no longer have the ability to study the vast collection of new coronavirus samples already collected. “They’re in freezers in China. We had free and open access while we were doing this collaboration to get the genetic sequences of the virus from those samples. But without the funding, we won’t be able to get that.”
Another part of the project that won’t be able to continue: Over the next four years, Daszak says, they were going to dig deeper into how communities in rural China are getting exposed to coronaviruses. “We have anthropologists that try to understand which human behaviors are most likely to cause those viruses to emerge. We designed programs to help reduce those behaviors — things like the wildlife trade — and to try to persuade governments and communities to do things in a less risky way.”
Finally, EcoHealth Alliance will have to forgo its plans to collect many more samples to expand the database of novel coronaviruses.
That’s a serious missed opportunity, he says, because “the genetic sequences of the viruses we find in wildlife are given to labs here in the U.S. — who then work to incorporate them into vaccines and drug designs so that we can be better prepared if there’s an emergence.”
Already, he adds, at least one of the teams researching a treatment to help in the current pandemic — a group based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — has been testing a drug called EIDD-2801 against not just COVID-19 but against several of the other bat coronaviruses that the EcoHealth Alliance project helped identify.
After all, says Daszak, ideally drugs and vaccines for COVID-19 will be designed to work on a “broader spectrum” of similar viruses — because, he says, it’s only a matter of time before one of those sparks another outbreak.
Not all scientists think that’s achievable. But Tulane’s Garry agrees it’s a reasonable — if challenging — goal. “It’s entirely possible to come up with a universal anti-coronavirus vaccine,” he says. “That’s the hope. It’s aspirational. But to do that we would need to know what the diversity of the coronavirus species are.”