The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has given U.S. research group EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) until Monday to release all of its NIH-funded coronavirus research data, after it failed to reveal that an engineered coronavirus was found to be more infectious in mice than other forms. Republicans have subsequently accused the group of lying to NIH.
Both organizations have been thrust into the spotlight by the fact the agency funded EHA research into coronaviruses in Wuhan—the Chinese city where the first COVID-19 cases were reported—over the past several years.
The work, funded by a multi-year grant awarded in 2014 and done in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), involved engineering coronaviruses to see how they affected mice. Critics say this was risky and could potentially have led to human infections or even the COVID pandemic.
The NIH has repeatedly denied that this was possible. On Wednesday, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins said in a statement that the NIH-funded virus research “could not possibly have caused the COVID-19 pandemic.”
His statement came the same day the health agency demanded that the EHA hand over any unpublished data related to the studies after it failed to immediately report back to the NIH when a coronavirus experiment produced the significant finding that the mice became sicker.
On Wednesday, NIH principal deputy director Lawrence Tabak outlined the NIH’s demands to EHA in a letter to Republican Representative James Comer.
In the experiment, the mice infected with the coronaviruses had been bioengineered to have a protein on their cells, called ACE2, to which the viruses could attach. Humans also have this protein, with the idea being that the experiments could more accurately illustrate the risk that these viruses pose to us despite only mice being involved.
According to Tabak’s letter, the experiments showed that “laboratory mice infected with the SHC014 WIV1 bat coronavirus became sicker than those infected with the WIV1 bat coronavirus.”
Tabak described this as an “unexpected result” that the researchers had not deliberately set out to produce, but that they nonetheless should have reported it in case new biosafety measures were needed.
At the same time, Tabak said that bat coronaviruses studied under the EHA grant “could not have been the source of SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 pandemic” since they were too genetically different.
As far as the NIH is concerned, this is a breach of the terms of the grant that the agency had awarded to EHA. EHA was required to tell the NIH if any of the experiments revealed what is known as a one log viral growth increase (a factor of ten).
He wrote: “EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away, as was required by the terms of the grant,” Tabak wrote. “EcoHealth is being notified that they have five days from today [October 20] to submit to NIH any and all unpublished data from the experiments and work conducted under this award.”
EHA disputed the NIH’s allegation that it breached the terms of the grant. In a statement to Newsweek, EHA said there had been a “misconception” about the grant’s terms and said that they did publish the research findings “as soon as we were made aware” in April 2018.
“NIH reviewed those data and did not indicate that secondary review of our research was required, in fact year 5 funding was allowed to progress without delay,” EHA said.
Republicans in the House Oversight Committee said this EHA blunder was proof that NIH “were lied to” about controversial gain of function research.
July 28th NIH says “no NIAID funding was approved for Gain of Function research at the WIV.”
Obviously, they were lied to.
NIH confirmed today EcoHealth and the WIV conducted GOF research on bat coronaviruses.
@PeterDaszak with EcoHealth hid it from the USG. pic.twitter.com/Ou3ZLKto0L
— Oversight Committee Republicans (@GOPoversight) October 20, 2021
The development comes after scientists called for Peter Daszak, the president of EHA to quit, accusing him of concealing conflicts of interest, withholding critical information, and misleading public opinion during the COVID pandemic.
Newsweek has previously reported on how an activist sleuth group named DRASTIC, standing for “Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19,” uncovered details of WIV research in China, as well as on Daszak’s collaboration with WIV director and bat virologist Shi Zhengli, and the scrutiny surrounding the EcoHealth Alliance.
Daszak has co-authored nearly a dozen papers with Shi Zhengli, and funnelled at least $600,000 of U.S. government funding to her research.
A Freedom of Information Act request from earlier this year showed that Daszak orchestrated a letter to squelch talk of a COVID lab leak. He drafted it, reached out to fellow scientists to sign it, and worked behind the scenes to make it seem that the letter represented the views of a broad range of experts.
“This statement will not have the EcoHealth Alliance logo on it and will not be identifiable as coming from any one organization or person,” he wrote in his pitch to the co-signatories. Scientists whose work had overlapped with the WIV agreed not to sign it so they could “put it out in a way that doesn’t link it back to our collaboration.”
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