NIH imposes ‘outrageous’ conditions on resuming coronavirus grant targeted by Trump – Science Magazine

Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural researchat the National Institutes of Health

By Meredith WadmanAug. 19, 2020 , 10:55 AM

Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

The National Institutes of Health is requiring a small nonprofit research organization to take unusualand perhaps impossiblesteps to end a controversial suspension of an NIH grant related to bat coronavirus research in China. NIHs conditions for reinstating the funding to the EcoHealth Alliance are outrageous, former NIH Director Harold Varmus told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in an article published today that first reported the agencys demands.

The controversy began in April, after President Donald Trump complained about NIHs grant to the EcoHealth Alliance because it involved researchers at Chinas Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Conservative commentators, Trump, and Trump administration officials have asserted, without evidence, that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 escaped from WIV. Shortly after Trumps complaint, NIH abruptly canceled the grant, stating that its goal of studying bat coronavirus spillovers into humans did not align with agency priorities. NIHs move drew extensive criticism from the scientific community.

Last month, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer sent the EcoHealth Alliance a letter stating the agency was reinstating the grant, but also instantly suspending it again pending the completion of certain actions. (ScienceInsider has now independently reviewed a copy of the 8 July letter.)Among the conditions included:

NIH declined interview requests for Lauer and agency Director Francis Collins, saying in a statement: NIH does not discuss internal deliberations on specific grants.

The EcoHealth Alliance said in a statement that NIHs letter cynically reinstates and instantly suspends the EcoHealth Alliances funding, then attempts to impose impossible and irrelevant conditions that will effectively block us from continuing this critical work.

Varmus, one of 77 Nobel laureates who wrote to current NIH Director Francis Collins in May demanding that he review the grants initial cancellation, told WSJ that NIHs list of conditions for reinstating the funding is outrageous, especially when a grant has already been carefully evaluated by peer review and addresses one of the most important problems in the world right nowhow viruses from animals spill over to human beings.

Peter Daszak, the EcoHealth Alliances president, called out Collins in an interview with ScienceInsider today, saying: It undermines biomedical science to give in to politics. I think thats a failure. And I think that Dr. Collins fell at the first hurdle. When challenged by the White House to cancel this grant he just gave in.

Jeremy Berg, who directed NIHs National Institute ofGeneral Medical Sciences from 2003 to 2011, notes that Collins is a political appointee who serves at the presidents pleasure. (Berg was also editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals until 2019.) He says: The question for anybody in [such] a leadership position is: Is there a line that you are not willing to cross? And that you think it would be more appropriate to stand on principle and resign rather than to give in? In my view, that line has been crossed with this.

With reporting by Kai Kupferschmidt.

*Update, 19 August,5:10 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional material from NIHs 8 Julyletter to the EcoHealth Alliance,a statement from NIH,and comments from Jeremy Berg and Peter Daszak.

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NIH imposes 'outrageous' conditions on resuming coronavirus grant targeted by Trump - Science Magazine

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