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US Suspends Funding for Controversial Virus-Hunting Group: What Researchers Say

US Suspends Funding for Controversial Virus-Hunting Group: What Researchers Say
US Suspends Funding for Controversial Virus-Hunting Group: What Researchers Say

 


EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak testified before a congressional panel on May 1, two weeks before the U.S. government cut off federal funding for the organization.Credit: Andrew Harnik/Getty

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has suspended federal funding for EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that has come under scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic for its collaboration with a virology laboratory in China, accused of having potentially disclosed the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus. Researchers who spoke to Nature are divided in their reaction to the decision: some believe HHS made the right choice given EcoHealth's apparent failure to comply with the terms of the grant it was awarded, thereby undermining the public trust; others say the decision seems unfairly tied to politics.

In a memo detailing the decision, Henrietta Brisbon, head of the HHS suspension and debarment, argued that EcoHealth failed to provide adequate oversight of research activities at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). ), in China. WIV was a subrecipient of a federal grant to EcoHealth from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), meaning it was a partner receiving funding to conduct some of the research. The document also describes how EcoHealth repeatedly failed to provide information related to research conducted under the grant requested by the NIH.

The HHS decision comes two weeks after EcoHealth Chairman, infectious disease specialist Peter Daszak, was questioned during a hearing held by a U.S. House subcommittee investigating the origins of the pandemic of COVID-19. During this session, Republican representatives suggested that EcoHealth conducted risky research with the WIV and Democrats criticized the nonprofits' lack of transparency.

In announcing the latest suspension of EcoHealth funding, HHS also proposed excluding the organization from federal funding and more permanently suspending grants for a period generally of up to 3 years. Beneficiary exclusions are generally reserved for serious violations: according to a 2022 report, HHS issued 134 exclusions between 2015 and 2019, most due to a criminal conviction or civil judgment.

In a statement, an EcoHealth spokesperson said the organization was disappointed by HHS's decision and would challenge the proposed exclusion. “We hope that we will have a fair chance to present the extensive evidence that we have demonstrating that all of these allegations are false and that they do not rise to the level of something that should lead to the exclusion of an organization from this way,” Daszak told Nature. .

It's important for research organizations to demonstrate they have a robust monitoring system in place, says social scientist Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity specialist at Kings College London, especially when it comes to research presenting pandemic risks, where the whole world could potentially be involved. affected by an accident. She adds that the decision to withhold funding seems appropriate: Whatever the details of the EcoHealth Alliance case, it is clear that the institution has lost the trust of HHS, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and many other parties. stakeholders to act safely and securely. responsibly.

EcoHealth could have better explained its work to the NIH and the public, agrees Lawrence Gostin, a health law and policy specialist at Georgetown University in Washington DC. But, according to him, the suspension has a strong political connotation. I have no idea if this decision was based on science, ethics or politics, he said. There has been criticism of the EcoHealth Alliance, particularly from congressional Republicans, and there has been this myth that the WIV was responsible for the pandemic, but all the evidence points in the direction opposite, towards a natural overflow of SARS-CoV-2. from wild animals to humans, he adds.

A delay of two years

EcoHealth had been collaborating for years with Chinese scientists to study pathogens with pandemic potential when, in 2014, it received an NIH grant to study bat coronaviruses. The NIH would ultimately suspend this grant in April 2020, during the early months of the pandemic. This came at a time when then-President Donald Trump had publicly suggested that China might be responsible for the pandemic. Funding was restored in May 2023 under significant restrictions, and the WIV was barred from receiving U.S. funding through subgrants later in the year.

The current suspension is prompted by alleged failure to comply with the terms and conditions of the 2014 grants. One of the key issues listed by HHS is EcoHealth's submission of a grant progress report more than two years after the date limit. HHS said this report contains information suggesting that an experiment conducted by the WIV may have led to increased growth of an engineered virus beyond a replication limit set by the NIH. EcoHealth and WIV were modifying a coronavirus linked to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), to study the potential origins of this type of virus in bats. In reviewing progress under the grant, the NIH told EcoHealth that if a virus generated under the grant shows evidence of replication beyond the established threshold, the nonprofit profit should ensure that all experiments are stopped and communicate the problem to the agency, which has not been done. This led HHS to conclude that the research likely violated NIH protocols regarding biosafety.

An EcoHealth spokesperson said it was untrue that the nonprofit violated the terms of the grant, given that the experiments did not reach a level that would be considered significant enough to be considered unusual. Regarding the delay in submitting the report, the spokesperson said EcoHealth made every effort to submit the report on time, but these were stymied by conflicting advice from NIH grant management officials and through an online system. [for submitting the report] It's confusing and error-prone, leading to several cases where the system locked us out.

The HHS memo states that, according to a forensic audit by the NIH, EcoHealth was never excluded from the system.

Federal auditors cited the NIH for its part in failing to act on the late report and recommended that the agency step up its oversight of foreign institutions that receive NIH funds.

Responding to HHS's allegation that EcoHealth failed to adequately respond to NIH's requests for information and materials regarding WIV research, the spokesperson said that given the geopolitical pressure on relations between the United States and China during the pandemic, and that HHS, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the intelligence community were unable to obtain evidentiary information from the WIV , it is scandalous to propose this as a reason to exclude our organization. (The WHO organized an initial investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, but further efforts were hampered by that country's lack of cooperation.)

Monitoring Questions

Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland, says any grant recipient must comply with a series of conditions, including timely reporting and institutional oversight. partners, and that the HHS memo appears to indicate that EcoHealth did not fully meet these standards. There are enough to call into question the type of management being done with this taxpayer money, he said.

EcoHealth Alliance has played an important role in informing scientists' understanding of new viruses, Gostin says. In addition to working on coronavirus surveillance in wildlife, the group has studied the transmission of Nipah virus and other pathogens to humans. He fears that the suspension will discourage research aimed at pandemic preparedness and prevention carried out in partnership with other countries. The next pandemic could easily occur in a country that trades in wildlife, like China. So the type of research and monitoring EcoHealth does is important, he says. The move sends a frightening signal to any future researchers wanting to better understand zoonotic viruses in the Chinese region, he adds.

Before the suspension, EcoHealth had three active NIH-funded grants aimed at studying the risk of emerging viruses in countries including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Vietnam. Since 2008, the organization has received $90.3 million in total federal funding, of which $19.59 million came from HHS.

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2/ https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-024-01460-3

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