New NIH Letter About EcoHealth Reporting Failure Raises New Questions About Gain-Of-Function Funding

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Documents released yesterday by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) appear to contradict previous claims by the EcoHealth Alliance regarding the subject of experiments on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China, raising further questions over whether U.S. government funding contributed to so-called “gain-of-function” research.

In a letter to Representative James Comer, Ranking Member on the Oversight and Reform Committee, the NIH provided additional information and documents regarding NIH’s much-scrutinized grant to EcoHealth Alliance.

“The limited experiment described in the final progress report provided by EcoHealth Alliance was testing if spike proteins from naturally occurring bat coronaviruses circulating in China were capable of binding to the human ACE2 receptor in a mouse model,” the letter, signed by NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak, states. “In this limited experiment, laboratory mice infected with the SHC014 WIV1 bat coronavirus became sicker than those infected with the WIV1 bat coronavirus.”

The NIH added that “this was an unexpected result of the research,” as “sometimes occurs in science.”

“The research plan was reviewed by NIH in advance of funding, and NIH determined that it did not fit the definition of research involving enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential (ePPP) because these bat coronaviruses had not been shown to infect humans,” said the NIH. “As such, the research was not subject to departmental review under the HHS PSCO Framework.”

“However,” the NIH continued, “out of an abundance of caution and as an additional layer of oversight, language was included in the terms and conditions of the grant award to EcoHealth that outlined criteria for a secondary review, such as a requirement that the grantee report immediately a one log increase in growth.”

“These measures would prompt a secondary review to determine whether the research aims should be re-evaluated or new biosafety measures should be enacted,” the letter claimed.

According to the NIH, “EcoHealth failed to report this finding right away, as was required by the terms of the grant.”

The letter has sparked more questions about the funding of potentially dangerous research, including from Sen. Rand Paul — who grilled Dr. Anthony Fauci earlier this year after the White House medical advisor claimed that “the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain of function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

“‘I told you so’ doesn’t even begin to cover it here,” tweeted Paul in response to a tweet highlighting the letter and stating that the “NIH states that EcoHealth Alliance violated Terms and Conditions of NIH grant AI110964.”

Tabak’s letter stresses that the “bat coronaviruses studied under the NIH grant to EcoHealth Alliance, Inc. and subaward to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) are not and could not have become SARS-CoV-2.”

The letter concludes by re-stating the claim that the “naturally occurring bat coronaviruses used in experiments under the NIH grant from 2014-2018 are decades removed from SARS-CoV-2 evolutionary.” The NIH added that while it “might appear” that the similarity of several virus sequences to SARS-CoV-2 is close — including RaTG13,” which was “one of the closest bat coronavirus relatives to SARS-CoV-2 collected by the Wuhan Institute of Virology” — “experts agree that even these viruses are far too divergent to have been the progenitor of SARS-CoV-2.”

The Intercept detailed their investigation on the subject of EcoHealth’s research.

In September, The Intercept received two grant proposals by EcoHealth Alliance that were submitted to the NIH. One of the proposals, “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” detailed troubling and potentially dangerous research conducted with bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, China. But the first release of the documents, which The Intercept received more than a year after it requested them, did not include the progress report for the grant’s fifth and final funding year.

Yesterday, the NIH provided that missing report for the period ending May 2019, which was inexplicably dated August 2021. That summary of the group’s work includes a description of an experiment the EcoHealth Alliance conducted involving infectious clones of MERS-CoV, the virus that caused a deadly outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012. MERS has a case-fatality rate as high as 35 percent, much higher than Covid-19’s. The scientists swapped out the virus’s receptor-binding domain, or RBD, a part of the spike protein that enables it to enter a host’s cells, according to the report. “We constructed the full-length infectious clone of MERS-CoV, and replaced the RBD of MERS-CoV with the RBDs of various strains of HKU4-related coronaviruses previously identified in bats from different provinces in southern China,” the scientists wrote.

Later in the report, The Intercept stated that they had “previously asked EcoHealth Alliance about work on MERS-CoV referenced in sections of the grant that NIH released in September,” and that (at the time) “EcoHealth spokesperson Robert Kessler insisted that the group had not conducted the work.”

According to The Intercept, the NIH claimed to have reviewed the controversial research, and found that it was “not subject to the 2014-2017 Gain-of-Function Research Funding Pause or to the P3CO Framework.”

However, according to the letter to Rep. Comer, NIH Principal Deputy Director Tabak appears to suggest that the NIH was not aware of the problematic and potentially dangerous research.

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