Controversial Coronavirus Research Gets New Money Under Biden

A research grant is back on track after a yearslong political battle that halted a coronavirus study in 2020.

During his time in office, former president Donald Trump implied that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China rather than a wet market. China maintains that the virus did originate at a wet market and not the Wuhan laboratory.

Some Republicans adopted the same theory as Trump, and the discrepancies between theories have worsened the relationship between the U.S. and China.

The theory also heightened public distrust in the government, especially after it was revealed that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), then led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, had agreed to provide funding for a grant that would allow EcoHealth Alliance, a New York nonprofit, to partner with the WIV to study bat coronaviruses.

The grant funded gain-of-function research, which involves experimenting with a virus to discover what increases its transmissibility. The research aids in preventing pandemics, allowing scientists to anticipate a response before a pandemic emerges, such as developing vaccines.

The grant was awarded under former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2014 and continued for part of Trump’s administration until the pandemic hit in 2020, when Trump pressured the NIH to halt the grant.

Former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington in 2022. A grant funded by the NIH under Fauci has been reinstated as long as the research follows strict requirements.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

EcoHealth Alliance was placed in the middle of a political and scientific battle, in which politicians criticized oversight of the grant and alleged the organization’s involvement in the pandemic. However, many scientists argued that Republicans were attacking science unfairly, according to a Science article, and the resulting furor was the result of political interference.

White Coat Waste Project, the organization that revealed taxpayer dollars were used to fund research at the WIV, still opposes the grant and spoke harshly against it on Tuesday.

“The batty taxpayer-funded grant that bankrolled EcoHealth Alliance’s dangerous animal experiments in Wuhan that probably prompted the pandemic should be de-funded, not re-funded,” the organization’s senior vice president, Justin Goodman, told Newsweek.

Three years later, EcoHealth Alliance will resume its research after agreeing to meet strict requirements, supplemented by $2.9 million in grant funds from the NIH.

Why was the grant halted?

The NIH was put under intense scrutiny over the grant after critics argued that the research should have been submitted for special review because of the risks involved in gain-of-function research. However, Fauci said the research didn’t meet requirements for the special review because the bat viruses being studied weren’t known to harm humans and the research wasn’t trying to make them more dangerous.

Newsweek reached out to the NIH by email for comment.

The EcoHealth Alliance grant was originally one part of a two-part grant funded by the NIH. The grant money was terminated in 2020 after Trump pressured the NIH to halt the research amid theories that the virus originated at WIV, but Newsweek reported that the NIH said the grant would resume if certain requirements were met.

Newsweek reached out to Trump’s campaign by email for comment.

What are the requirements?

EcoHealth Alliance is prohibited from conducting its research in China, including at WIV, Nature reported. The nonprofit is also barred from collecting new samples from bats, and the organization’s finances will be examined with increased scrutiny and must follow improved accounting methods.

A further stipulation bars EcoHealth Alliance from conducting work that could enhance the transmission of the virus between hosts.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will oversee the research.

Nature reported that the president of EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, believes no NIH grant recipient has ever been subjected to such intense oversight.

Newsweek reached out to EcoHealth Alliance by email for comment.

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