The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter/File
New Delhi: The US National Institute of Health (NIH) will partially terminate a grant to a nonprofit based in the country which worked with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on bat coronavirus research. The development comes after the NIH demanded but did not get lab notebooks and other records about controversial experiments to enhance bat viruses that were conducted by the Wuhan institute.
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, letters posted by Republicans on the US House Oversight Committee this month showed that an NIH official said EcoHealth Alliance – the nonprofit – “had not been able to hand over lab notebooks and other records from its Wuhan partner”.
EcoHealth is a New York-based nonprofit that works to thwart infectious disease outbreaks.
Michael Lauer, the deputy director of extramural research at NIH, said in the letter that the agency was terminating the sub-award to the Wuhan Institute of Virology “for failure to meet award terms and conditions requiring provision of records to NIH upon request”.
“NIH has requested on two occasions that [EcoHealth] provide NIH the laboratory notebooks and original electronic files from the research conducted at [the Wuhan Institute of Virology]. To date, [the institute] has not provided these records,” the letter says.
The NIH also told EcoHealth that the action comes because the nonprofit “did not include terms and conditions on its sub-award to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including a requirement that EcoHealth Alliance be allowed access to the institute’s records and financial statements”, according to the Bulletin.
In a letter to EcoHealth staff, NIH said:
“NIH has determined that [Wuhan Institute of Virology’s] refusal to provide the requested records, and [EcoHealth’s] failure to include the required terms in [the] subaward agreement represent material failures to comply with the terms of award.”
The US government institute had first asked EcoHealth last year to submit lab notebooks and other files. The nonprofit said it would “relay the request” to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but never got the notebooks.
That first request was prompted by revelations that EcoHealth did not notify NIH after experiments at the Wuhan lab showed that modified coronaviruses replicated at a faster rate in experimental mice than an unmodified virus. These types of experiments are called gain-of-function research, where pathogens are made more transmissible or enhanced in other ways.
According to the Bulletin, scientists at the Wuhan lab – working on EcoHealth’s grant – tested genetically engineered coronaviruses for experiments between June 2017 and May 2019. Among the experiments joined one virus with the spike proteins of another on “humanised mice” – i.e. mice which had human cell receptors. In some cases, these genetically engineered or “chimaera” viruses made the mice “sicker” than the unmodified virus.
These risky experiments have once again spurned discussion on the lab-leak theory, even as the NIH said that the experiments conducted by the Wuhan institute used viruses that were too genetically distant to have evolved into SARS-CoV-2. Cases of COVID-19 were first detected in Wuhan, which not only hosts the coronavirus laboratory but also wet markets where live animals that could host the virus were kept in unhygienic conditions.
Though in the early days of the pandemic, scientists widely accepted that SARS-CoV-2 evolved naturally, there has been more skepticism since. Several scientists have urged in open letters that the lab-leak theory should not be dismissed and called for a fuller investigation into the origins of the virus.
A number of scientists have already called for Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, to step down because he had led the charge in dismissing the lab-leak hypothesis despite being aware of the gain-of-function experiments.