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NIH demands unpublished data on coronavirus experiment, but says research is not linked to the pandemic

Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus emerged, is home to research institutions that study coronaviruses, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The National Institutes of Health is taking a recipient of federal research dollars to task even as it seeks to quell the latest controversy over coronavirus experiments funded by the agency and conducted in Wuhan, China, before the pandemic.

NIH has demanded that the research organization EcoHealth Alliance turn over any unpublished data from an experiment conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that showed that laboratory mice became unexpectedly sicker with one of the naturally circulating strains of bat coronavirus. According to NIH, this was a significant experimental finding, and EcoHealth did not promptly report it as required by the grant.

But NIH director Francis S. Collins is simultaneously pushing back against critics of his agency and people who he believes are spreading misinformation about the experiment in Wuhan to score political points. He said the experiment — which used mice modified with human ACE2 receptors that allow viruses to infect cells — could not possibly have had been linked to the emergence of the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The bat coronaviruses under scrutiny in that experiment are not closely related, genetically, to the novel coronavirus that has spread across the planet.

“Those virus genomes were as far away from SARS-CoV-2 as a cow is from a human,” Collins said in an interview with The Washington Post.

And contrary to inflammatory media reports and accusations from some Republican lawmakers, the experiment did not involve “gain of function” research that enhances aspects of a pathogen for research purposes, Collins said.

For more than a year, a few vocal Republican members of Congress have tried to link the origin of the pandemic to NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and its longtime leader, Anthony S. Fauci. Fauci’s institute helped fund some research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with grant money sent there through EcoHealth Alliance.

EcoHealth Alliance has spent years studying coronaviruses, and now is under the microscope itself. In September, The Intercept published hundreds of pages of documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that cover NIH grants to EcoHealth for an array of experiments.

The controversy over coronavirus research boiled anew Thursday when Republican lawmakers seized on a letter sent a day earlier by NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak to Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) in response to an information request.

Tabak said the experiment in Wuhan funded by NIH through EcoHealth could not have led to the emergence of the novel coronavirus. The letter also states that the experiment did not represent enhanced pathogen research under guidelines adopted by the federal government.

The Tabak letter disclosed that NIH believes that EcoHealth did not comply with requirements of its grant. The agency gave the research organization five days to turn over any unpublished data from the experiment. The letter said EcoHealth did not report promptly the higher rate of disease in mice from one of the coronaviruses under study.

EcoHealth Thursday disputed that it did not report its experimental findings as required.

“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,” the organization said, adding that it is “working to answer any questions NIH has about the research.”

The grant to EcoHealth has been suspended, Collins said Thursday.

“They messed up here. There’s going to be some consequences for EcoHealth,” he said. But he also said that, had the experimental result been reported earlier, “it would not have been a reason to sort of hit the panic button and say my god this is dangerous stuff.”

A lingering question is to what extent the scientific community has imposed adequate containment measures when doing experiments with potentially dangerous viruses.

Jesse Bloom, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has pushed fellow scientists to be more open to the so-called “lab-leak” theory, said in an email Thursday that EcoHealth has sought to do experiments on a large number of high-risk coronaviruses, and in his view, “some of this research on potential pandemic pathogens poses unacceptable risks.”

Separately, in advance of what was certain to be a media firestorm, Collins issued a statement late Wednesday addressing what he termed misinformation about the origin of the virus, which remains unknown.

“Unfortunately, in the absence of a definitive answer, misinformation and disinformation are filling the void, which does more harm than good,” Collins wrote.

Scientists have not identified an immediate ancestor of the novel coronavirus, although such investigations often take many years. Virtually all pandemics have begun through a natural zoonosis in which a virus jumps from an animal into the human species. One long-suspected transmission route for the zoonosis of SARS-CoV-2 are the markets in Wuhan where live animals are sold.

But Wuhan is also the home of research institutions that study coronaviruses, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Chinese officials have refused to turn over records sought by international investigators.

A review this summer by multiple U.S. intelligence agencies failed to reach a consensus on the virus’s origin, with most of the agencies leaning toward a natural zoonosis origin and one agency leaning toward the “lab leak” theory.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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