Deadline Looms for Delayed Bat Research Data Entangled in COVID Origin Dispute

EcoHealth Alliance, the U.S. research group under fire from Republicans for its coronavirus experiments, must submit its research data to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by today.

The deadline comes after the NIH lambasted the research group for failing to disclose in a timely manner the results of a test in which mice became sicker when infected with an engineered coronavirus than they did with a normal bat coronavirus.

Funding for the tests came from the NIH on the condition that if any engineered viruses turned out to show a 10-times-faster growth increase then EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) would have to notify the NIH immediately to see if extra safety measures were needed.

According to a letter sent by NIH principal deputy director Lawrence Tabak to U.S. Republican James Comer on the Committee on Oversight and Reform, EHA failed to immediately report a viral growth increase when it occurred.

As such, Tabak said EHA was notified that they had five business days from October 20 "to submit to NIH any and all unpublished data from the experiments and work conducted" under the funding grant.

On Tuesday, an EHA spokesperson told Newsweek that the research group intends to comply with the request and submit the data by today.

At the same time, the group has disputed any wrongdoing. In a statement last Friday, a spokesperson said: "EcoHealth Alliance is working with the NIH to promptly address what we believe to be a misconception about the grant's reporting requirements and what the data from our research showed.

"These data were reported as soon as we were made aware, in our year 4 report 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."

Tabak's letter states that a progress report for the tests was submitted to NIH in August this year.

EHA has come under fire from Republicans such as Rand Paul who have accused them of using NIH funds to conduct restricted gain of function experiments that could make viruses more dangerous to humans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has insisted this is not the case. He has faced calls from Paul to quit amid the controversy.

It comes as part of a wider debate surrounding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and whether experiments such as those carried out by EHA could have accidentally sparked the initial SARS-CoV-2 outbreak.

The debate over gain of function aside, the NIH has said that the coronaviruses being studied and engineered by EHA could not possibly have become SARS-CoV-2 because they were too genetically different.

Lab worker with COVID test samples
A lab worker holds COVID PCR swab test samples at a facility in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in April 2020. The origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are still in dispute. Amilcar Orfali/Getty