NIH Ends Funding For U.S. Nonprofit's COVID-19 Research In China
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As the U.S. tops 1 million COVID-19 cases, the government is terminating funding for a major coronavirus research project in China. The project was run by a U.S. nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance. Its teams have been traveling the world, trapping wild animals, collecting samples of their blood, saliva, then checking the samples for new viruses that have the potential to kick off deadly global pandemics in humans. Three years ago, NPR met up with an ecologist with EcoHealth Alliance at the edge of a rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Kevin Olival was taking samples from a female bat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
KEVIN OLIVAL: It's OK, girl. It's OK. So we're getting the oral swab in the back of the throat. And I'm just holding her head between my two fingers with a leather glove on. Ooh, good one. Definitely some sample on that swab.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAT SCREECHING)
MARTIN: In China, EcoHealth Alliance collected thousands of samples like this and found hundreds of coronaviruses, including one extremely similar to what we're dealing with now. So why is the U.S. government suddenly pulling funding for the China research? We've got NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman with us to help answer that question. Hi, Nurith.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Can you start by just telling us about this project in China?
AIZENMAN: It goes back to 2003. Remember the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in China? Well, scientists think some version of SARS, which is a type of coronavirus, had long been circulating in bats before suddenly making its way into humans.
So EcoHealth Alliance started this work in China to, essentially, prepare for the next coronavirus outbreak, find out what other new viruses were percolating in bats. And they teamed up with a very respected local outfit, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that is what seems to be behind the U.S. government's sudden pulling of the funding because, in recent weeks, all sorts of conspiracy theories have been circulating that the Wuhan Institute might have started the current coronavirus outbreak through some kind of contamination accident.
MARTIN: Yeah, so we've reported on that, specifically about how U.S. intelligence agencies are looking into that claim. What are you hearing from the science community?
AIZENMAN: Yes. And also, earlier this month, The Washington Post got hold of some State Department cables that spoke of safety concerns with the lab in Wuhan. But NPR has spoken with half a dozen researchers who are familiar with both lab accidents and how research on coronaviruses is conducted, and the consensus is there's virtually no chance that the new coronavirus was released as a result of a lab accident in China or anywhere else. Still, there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism, particularly by Republican leaders, of this institute.
Then about a week ago, at a press conference, a reporter asked President Trump why U.S. funds had been provided to the institute as a result of this project run by EcoHealth Alliance.
MARTIN: So - right. Can you explain that - how this funding for EcoHealth made its way to the Wuhan Institute?
AIZENMAN: OK, I should note that both the questioner and then President Trump in his answer misstated the details of this funding. They implied the Obama administration had sent $3.7 million to the Wuhan Institute. That is not the case.
AIZENMAN: First of all, this grant was started under Obama but then renewed for another five years under Trump. Second, only a small portion of the money goes to the Wuhan Institute to cover part of their costs - remember, it's their labs that are being used to collect and analyze these samples. But at this press conference, Trump said his officials were looking at the grant, and if money is going to the Wuhan Institute, quote, "we will end that grant very quickly." Days later, EcoHealth Alliance gets an email from the National Institutes of Health, which provides the grant, saying it's terminated.
MARTIN: OK. And just briefly, how is EcoHealth Alliance reacting?
AIZENMAN: I mean, the president, Peter Daszak, is mystified. He says, without this funding, the project can't go forward. And there's a real cost. They have samples of hundreds of different coronaviruses sitting in the freezer in Wuhan that they won't be able to access anymore.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman walking us through the implications of this decision. Thank you.
AIZENMAN: Glad to do it, Rachel.
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