Scientists want funding for bat-coronavirus study resumed, call US political interference dangerous precedent
Strongly condemning political interference in scientific studies, over 300 scientists from 29 organizations have written to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Congress, demanding the immediate reinstatement of the grant on a study on coronaviruses and bats. The letter expresses outrage at the canceling of a major grant to an international collaboration that studied coronaviruses in bats to determine how they may evolve to transmit in the human population. The letter also calls for an investigation into the decision-making process at the NIH that canceled the grant funding in the first place.
According to the scientists, a “vibrant community of independent scientists” is crucial to a functioning democracy and will be the first line of defense against another crisis that costs as many lives as the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We write in strong condemnation of political interference in scientific grantmaking. We ask for the immediate reinstatement of the grant to EcoHealth Alliance and for a congressional investigation into the decision making process at the NIH that canceled the funding in the first place. Beyond the critical importance of the research the NIH defunded, political interference in grantmaking is a disturbing trend that would allow politicians to effectively squash research that does not align with their political desires,” says the strongly-worded letter from the Covid-19 Working Group-New York.
“Industry influence in research, the silencing of climate science, and long-term harm of American science in the global climate become increasingly likely if politicians can easily meddle in grantmaking. We must stand united as a community of clinicians, scientists, activists, and citizens to demand the best – most transparent – scientific decision-making process in this moment of crisis, and always,” emphasize the scientific community.
The Covid-19 Working Group-New York is a coalition of doctors, healthcare professionals, scientists, social workers, community workers, activists, and epidemiologists committed to a rapid and community-oriented response to the coronavirus pandemic. The letter has been sent to Dr Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, along with officials on the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Health Committee. “Political interference has no place in science,” tweeted Gregg Gonsalves from the Yale School of Public Health, who has also signed the letter.
The Trump administration abruptly terminated funding for a project studying how coronavirus can spread from bats to people after reports linked the work to a lab in Wuhan, China, which is at the center of conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic’s origins. The project was run by a US nonprofit called EcoHealth Alliance.
“Canceling a grant that provided so much valuable information about coronaviruses in bat species is simply wrong and irresponsible, especially in the midst of a devastating pandemic caused by a coronavirus. The precedent is dangerous,” says David Ho, Director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center of Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a statement.
“Making grant funding contingent on political expediency rather than sound science is outrageous, antithetical to the scientific method, and profoundly dangerous to public health. It sets an ominous precedent that urgent, crucial research on SARS-CoV-2 and other threats may be hindered by political interference, leaving us more vulnerable in the future,” says Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and Ebola and SARS-CoV-2 researcher at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.
The scientists explain that cancelation of a grant mid-term will disrupt the progress of research in how coronaviruses can evolve to infect humans and the exact process that birthed SARS-CoV-2, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. They emphasize that while this research was always critical given the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic, it is now “absolutely essential” to understand how this crisis originated and to avoid another pandemic in the future.
As of May 13, over 4,261,740 Covid-19 cases have been reported globally, and more than 291,940 have died in the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.
According to the experts, the decision appears to be directly related to the Trump administration’s belief in the conspiracy theory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of Covid-19, was purposefully or accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “The Wuhan Institute of Virology was a participant in the EcoHealth Alliance grant that was canceled. To be clear, there is no evidence of human engineering of the SARS-CoV-2 virus nor of accidental release of a laboratory viral strain. Phylogenetic analyses support the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from bats in the wild,” says the letter. It adds, “Bowing to conspiracy theories in this time of crisis to prevent necessary research may, therefore, be sowing the seeds of another crisis in the future.”
The scientists state that the NIH has a long and well-established protocol for scoring and funding grants, including decisions on scientific merit, productivity, and the import of research by large panels of expert scientists. They explain that alterations in funding are incredibly disruptive to ongoing research projects, many of which span years if not decades.
“In fact, the grant to EcoHealth Alliance provided critical data – including the sequences of closely related bat coronaviruses to SARS-CoV-2 – that both helped identify the origin of Covid-19 and identified remdesivir as a potential drug for the disease, allowing it to be rapidly moved into clinical trials. It is absurd and horrifying that the Trump administration would shut down a research program that led to the first promising treatment for Covid-19,” the scientists state in their letter.