NIH Took Scientist's Word That Wuhan Research Wasn't Dangerous

Newly released documents suggest that National Institutes of Health (NIH) staff relied on the word of the president of a non-governmental U.S. research group that it was funding to decide whether its experiments would count as restricted "gain of function" research.

Staff at the NIH voiced concerns in 2016 that EcoHealth Alliance (EHA)—which is at the center of the debate around whether COVID could have escaped from a lab— had planned experiments that could be classed as controversial "gain of function" research, the documents show.

The documents were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the anti-animal testing group White Coat Waste Project and published on Wednesday by The Daily Caller, which is described by the Columbia Journalism Review as a right-wing news outlet. Newsweek contacted the NIH and EHA but was unable to immediately verify the documents.

They show email correspondence between EHA and NIH staff over a period of years as they discuss details of virus research undertaken by the former and funded by the latter.

EHA has been thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic because it has worked for years to research bat coronaviruses with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is based in the city where the first COVID cases were reported.

The origin of the COVID pandemic remains unknown, and experts say it may never be proven whether the virus spread to humans from an animal or escaped from a lab in an accident, as two prominent hypotheses argue.

Republicans and some scientists have criticized the coronavirus research, funded by the NIH via regular grants, amid the ongoing debate about how the COVID pandemic may have started and whether the NIH may have funded restricted Gain-of-Function (GoF) research that could make viruses more dangerous to humans. The NIH has repeatedly denied this.

In October 2014, the U.S. government announced a pause on federal funding for certain GoF research projects that "may be reasonably anticipated to confer attributes to influenza, MERS, or SARS viruses such that the virus would have enhanced pathogenicity and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route."

This pause would not apply to tests of naturally occurring flu, MERS or SARS viruses unless they were "reasonably anticipated to increase transmissibility and/or pathogenicity."

The newly released documents appear to show that in May 2016, NIH staffers Jenny Greer, a grants management specialist, and Erik Stemmy, a program officer, wrote to EHA president Peter Daszak to voice concerns that a proposed EHA study on SARS and MERS viruses "may include GoF research that is subject to the U.S. Government funding pause."

MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, are both caused by types of coronaviruses that are potentially deadly to humans, which emerged before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, which was eventually approved and conducted at the WIV, aimed to test predictions of inter-species transmission of coronaviruses.

The NIH staffers called on Daszak to state whether the research would be classed as GoF and whether the chimeric viruses—those that have essentially been merged with others for research purposes—would be likely to be more transmissible in mammals compared to a version found in the wild.

Daszak responded, arguing that the work would not be considered GoF because the U.S. pause "specifically targeted experiments that altered the pathogenicity or transmissibility of SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and any influenza virus" and the particular virus they aimed to use "is about 10% different from SARS-CoV".

He said that the purpose of the study was to see if the chimeric bat viruses would be able to infect mice despite EHA believing it to be "highly unlikely" that these bat spike proteins would attach to the correct receptors, "and, if so, that they would have any pandemic potential."

In order to address concerns, Daszak also said that experiments would be immediately stopped and the NIH informed if there was evidence of "enhanced virus growth" of 1 log, or times ten.

The work was eventually approved and NIH staff informed Daszak in July 2016 that it was "in agreement that the work proposed under Aim 3 to generate MERS-like or SARS-like chimeric coronaviruses (CoVs) is not subject to the GoF funding pause." It noted Daszak's assurance that the work would be paused if any enhanced transmissibility in mammals was observed.

Last month, the NIH accused EHA of failing to uphold its side of the bargain when viral growth was observed in 2018 but was not reported by the organization. EHA has denied that this was the case and has claimed it did disclose the finding.

The 2016 correspondence has been criticized by some scientists. Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France, accused the NIH of "bending over backward to help people it's funded" in a comment to The Intercept.

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University and vocal critic of EHA's work, told the same outlet: "This is like the teacher giving you the opportunity to write your own homework problem and grade your own homework when you turn it in."

In addition, a letter dated October 27 to NIH director Francis Collins by Republicans in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who had seen the Daszak-NIH emails, said: "EcoHealth portrayed the risks of these experiments as if they were not of concern, and the NIH accepted EcoHealth's assertions without a searching inquiry."

Both EHA and the NIH have maintained that none of EHA's research could possibly have started the pandemic because the viruses being investigated were too genetically distant from SARS-CoV-2.

Newsweek has contacted the NIH and Daszak for comment.

This is not the first time Daszak has faced criticism. Earlier this year a group of 10 people including scientists and activists called on EHA to remove Daszak as its president due to controversy surrounding its research.

Peter Daszak
Peter Daszak, EcoHealth Alliance president, seen in a car outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China as part of a COVID origins investigation in February 2021. Hector Retamal/AFP / Getty