NIH Approves Millions in New Grants to Organization That Funded Wuhan Lab

NIH Approves Millions in New Grants to Organization That Funded Wuhan Lab
Peter Daszak, a member of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19, speaks to media upon arriving at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Feb. 3, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
Eva Fu
Updated:
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Millions of federal dollars have continued flowing into EcoHealth Alliance, the New York-based nonprofit under heavy scrutiny for its role in funneling public money to a key laboratory in China for bat coronavirus research that many believe may have caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Sept. 21, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued three grants to EcoHealth to fund its Asia-based research into viruses that have the potential to infect humans and spark an outbreak, government records show. At a total of $2.76 million, the funding marks an increase of nearly $700,000 from the amount awarded in 2021, and is the largest sum the organization has received from the NIH in a single year.

The grants—two of which have received NIH funding for three consecutive years—came amid mounting congressional scrutiny over EcoHealth’s years-long partnership with the Wuhan lab that has been at the center of a lab-leak theory on the origins of COVID-19.

Two of the grant projects are headed by the organization’s president, Peter Daszak, who has repeatedly dismissed the lab-leak hypothesis, labeling it a conspiracy theory.

That EcoHealth has funded risky research by the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) means that U.S. authorities should cease funding the organization altogether, some critics argue.

“Giving taxpayer money to EcoHealth to study pandemic prevention is like paying a suspected arsonist to conduct fire safety inspections. You would think we would have learned a lesson the first time, but here we are again with the same plot but a bigger budget!” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told The Epoch Times in an email.

Controversial Grant to Wuhan Lab

The NIH in July 2020 suspended a multi-year grant worth $3.7 million to EcoHealth to study bat coronaviruses in China in collaboration with WIV, over concerns the grantees weren’t complying with the grant terms. Experts previously told The Epoch Times that the experiments conducted in the grant met the definition of gain-of-function—research that increases the transmissibility or pathogenicity of a virus.

The NIH has denied that characterization.

During a review of the concerns, the NIH found that EcoHealth had failed to report a WIV experiment that made the bat coronavirus more dangerous. The agency in November 2021 and again in January asked EcoHealth for copies of laboratory notebook entries and original electronic files from the research conducted at the Wuhan facility, but without success, causing the NIH to eventually terminate the WIV sub-award on Aug. 19, the NIH told the Committee on Oversight and Reform in a letter of the same date (pdf).
Peter Daszak (R), Thea Fischer (L), and other members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus, arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei Province on Feb. 3, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
Peter Daszak (R), Thea Fischer (L), and other members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus, arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei Province on Feb. 3, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
Despite the termination, the NIH allowed EcoHealth to retain the grant by proposing, within 30 days, an alternative plan to accomplish the goals of the original project without the WIV’s involvement, the agency said in another letter (pdf) on Aug. 19.
The revised grant, according to the first letter, will be screened to ensure it’s in line with a 2017 framework (pdf) governing the review of proposed gain-of-function research. If the revised grant were approved, it would also be subject to additional oversight by the NIH, including onsite inspections of sub-recipient labs every six months to review their compliance.

Benefits of New Grant Questioned

The NIH didn’t return repeated queries from The Epoch Times to clarify the terms of the September grants, but the new grant, with the project number 1R01AI163118-01A1, appears to be the revised grant that excludes the participation of WIV.

Titled “Analyzing the Potential for Future Bat Coronavirus Emergence in Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam,” the five-year project led by Daszak will focus on three southeastern Asian countries neighboring China, with a goal to “analyze the behavioral and environmental risk factors for spillover of novel CoVs [coronaviruses], identify wildlife-to-human spillover events, assess the risk and drivers of community transmission and spread, and test potential public health interventions to disrupt spillover and spread,” according to a project summary published on the NIH website.

The 2022 funding of $653,392 from NIH is also comparable to the terminated grant, which received roughly $3.75 million in total from 2014 to 2019.

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University who’s raised concerns about the government’s approach to sponsoring risky research, reviewed the project summary and concluded that the research didn’t involve gain-of-function experiments. But he noted that a risk-benefit analysis of the project that seeks to discover new bat viruses looks “highly unfavorable.”

“With respect to benefits, the research has no—zero—civilian applications,” Ebright told The Epoch Times in an email, adding that the “only practical applications of the research are biodefense applications (i.e., discovery and threat assessment of new bioweapons agents).”

On the other hand, “by collecting novel potential pandemic pathogens in remote locations and transporting them to laboratories in human population centers, the research poses high risks of triggering new pandemics,” he said.

“In conjunction with EcoHealth’s documented track record of inadequate biosafety precautions and reckless procedures during field collection and laboratory research, the risks should be deemed not only as high but as extremely high,” he said.

A researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei Province feeds a worm to a bat in a 2017 video. (Screenshot)
A researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei Province feeds a worm to a bat in a 2017 video. (Screenshot)
Footage from the Wuhan facility shows a history of disregard for safety standards. Its 2017 promotional video features images of a researcher feeding live bats while wearing only surgical gloves, and some WIV staff collecting bat samples in the field while wearing only regular surgical masks. A researcher from the lab also told Chinese media that he had been bitten by bats while out in the field collecting samples.

Outcry

According to Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), the NIH’s decision to continue funding EcoHealth is inexcusable.
“It is beyond belief that NIH is choosing to be willfully ignorant of EcoHealth Alliance’s failure to follow federal laws and NIH’s grant policy requirements,” the senator, who last month sought to cut multimillion-dollar grants from another U.S. agency to EcoHealth, told The Epoch Times in an email.
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) questions Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a Senate panel on June 16, 2022. (The Epoch Times via the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee)
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) questions Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a Senate panel on June 16, 2022. (The Epoch Times via the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee)

“EcoHealth and NIH are operating in tandem to proliferate risky research with deadly pathogens out of the reach of U.S. oversight. It is inexcusable that NIH chooses to extend unprecedented power and funding to Peter Daszak’s noncompliant organization and ignore their own policy of holding the principal investigator accountable for the misconduct of its sub-awardee, the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Marshall said.

“Continuing to invest public funds in a company as shady as EcoHealth is dangerous and irresponsible.”

EcoHealth is the recipient of dozens of federal grants since 2002. Among these, 13 are still active, the U.S. grant database indicates. The largest single grant came from the U.S. Agency for International Development at $4.7 million, a five-year award given in 2021. Besides NIH, other grantors were the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the National Science Foundation.

Republicans on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce who have been probing EcoHealth’s activities also expressed outrage at the continuing funding.

“EcoHealth Alliance and Peter Daszak should not be getting a dime of taxpayer funds until they are completely transparent to the Energy and Commerce Committee and the American people. Period,” Jack Heretik, spokesman for Energy and Commerce Republicans, told The Epoch Times in an email.

Such spending of taxpayer money is counterintuitive, said Justin Goodman, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at White Coat Waste Project, which has been probing EcoHealth and WIV’s research.

“EcoHealth Alliance’s animal experiments should be de-funded, not re-funded,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

“This shady group funneled US tax dollars to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for dangerous animal experiments that likely caused the pandemic, skirted a federal ban on gain-of-function research, repeatedly violated transparency law, and obstructed investigations into COVID’s origins. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund this reckless rogue lab contractor any longer.”

EcoHealth and NIH didn’t respond to inquiries from The Epoch Times regarding criticism directed at the new grants.

Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S. politics, U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights. Contact Eva at [email protected]
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